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Close to the Heart

Brave Heart Program

The Brave Heart Program heals Washington County's veterans and their families with horses and nature.

by Jennifer Mellace and photos by Turner Photography Studio

Just south of Hagerstown, tucked away on 22 acres, is an unassuming farm with horses, chickens, and British Soay sheep — a breed native to a small island off the coast of Scotland. While this property may resemble one of the hundreds like it in Washington County, this one is a little different. This farm — named Washington County’s Farm of the Year in 2015 — is a place of healing for our country’s military veterans and their families.

Home to the Brave HEART (Heroes Equine Adventure & Riding Therapy) Program, Larkspur Lane Farm was purchased by Jeff and Laura Unsworth in 2003 with a vision to merge their love of horses with their desire to help military families transition back into life after deployment. Married for more than 20 years, the Unsworths know firsthand the stress that comes with being a military family. Jeff is currently an active duty National Guard officer who can be deployed at any time, but has also served in the active Army as an enlisted soldier and has been overseas several times. During his deployments, and after his return home, the couple found the farm and their horses to be a source of comfort and healing and wanted to share this with other military families who are struggling to find “normal” again.

After months and years of deployment, many soldiers have a difficult time transitioning back into their communities and can often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimates that PTSD affects as many as one-quarter of the troops returning from deployments. Fortunately, the growing field of equine-assisted psychotherapy is showing great promise in treating veterans and their families who suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, and other debilitating effects of this disability. A recent study published by Military Medical Research notes that “participants had a statistically significant decrease in PTSD scores after three weeks of therapeutic riding as well as a statistically and clinically significant decrease after six weeks of therapeutic riding. The findings suggest that therapeutic riding may be a clinically effective intervention for alleviating PTSD symptoms in military veterans.”

While horses are the focal point of Brave HEART, the program also offers a customized variety of outdoor activities like hiking, gardening, and animal husbandry that address not only members of the military, but also work to rebuild and reinforce the bonds of family relationships. “The purpose of Brave HEART is to give families an opportunity to reestablish the family bonds that are strained by military service — in particular deployments and combat. We do this by taking the veterans out of the military environment as much as possible,” Jeff shares.

Both Jeff and Laura have noticed that being around horses shifts the focus of the veterans, which helps their healing process. “When you’re focused on the horse, you’re not thinking about yourself or your issues,” says Laura. “Horses don’t judge these veterans and they don’t look down on them. Horses are very intuitive and aware of human emotion — if someone is angry, frustrated, or upset about something, a horse is going to sense that. In some cases, with severe post-traumatic stress, the battle inside overwhelms these veterans, and they become afraid of things. What we do is explain that a horse is a prey animal, so every single day that is what a horse goes through — fear. We teach veterans to help a horse through this, and once they do that, they realize they can help themselves in much the same way.”

Open year-round, the farm sees the most visitors during the warmer months when the weather is more conducive to outdoor activities. Veterans come with their families and have the option to horseback ride or to simply enjoy grooming the horses, feeding the chickens and sheep, engage in arts and crafts, or hike on the 1.2-mile nature trail around the property. The Unsworths have created these options with help from the community, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation of Washington County, and the Corporation for Assistive Technology who helped build a wheelchair ramp at the farm that allows veterans to mount the horses with ease. Brave HEART has also worked with the Boy Scouts and has been involved with four Eagle Scout projects, the latest of which was conceived by a young man who came up with the idea to create five kid-friendly activity stations along the nature trail.

“The overall emphasis here is to bring a family who has a lot of stress and get them out of that environment and help them to remember what it’s like to have fun and get away,” says Laura. “Brave HEART provides an informal setting where people can let their guard down and just be who they are. Moms and dads become more lighthearted and kids become connected through nature and just being out here.”

Kelsi Waltemire Palmer, board of directors president for Brave HEART and a military spouse, came to know Laura through the Community Foundation and has been active with the program for several years. “I became involved with Brave HEART because I saw the need it filled in our community,” says Kelsi. 

“I feel it’s important to educate people about veterans’ causes and how to stay ahead of PTSD and get better help for families. Getting back to non-military service is hard, and PTSD can complicate everyday life. But Brave HEART understands this and provides a safe environment for vets and their families to connect through nature and animals. Brave HEART is Laura and Jeff’s passion, and we want to spread the word about the program and let the community know that there are resources for these military families.”

After starting Brave HEART in 2012, the Unsworths linked up with Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, and organized Horses Healing Maryland’s Military (HHMM) — a coalition of licensed Maryland stables offering horsemanship and therapeutic programs to military members, veterans, and their families. “HHMM meets once a month to share problems, successes, and solutions to issues that come up,” says Laura. “We visit each other’s farms and learn from each other’s programs. It’s a great resource for all of us and to those who seek programs like this for veterans in need.”

While there are thousands of veterans’ support organizations of all sizes and types across the country, some needs are best met by local grassroots-style organizations, says retired Brig. Gen. Peter Hinz, who is also a board member for Brave HEART. “There are countless needs for support to veterans, and organizations like Brave HEART provide much more personalized, tailored, and individual support,” he says.

This personalized support is found not only in the program’s year-round farm activities, but also in the annual backpack tradition started by the Unsworths. “In the winter, when things slow down, we gather the volunteers and put together backpacks filled with gift certificates, toiletries, wrapped gifts, and homemade cookies for the veterans at the North Point Veterans Home in Hagerstown,” says Laura. “Part of Way Station, North Point offers housing support services to homeless veterans, pro-vides them with counseling, and helps them find a job, and eventually, a home of their own. We’re so lucky to have this in our community. The backpacks we hand out are reminiscent of a deployment package and lets these veterans know that they are remembered at the holidays.”

While small, Brave HEART has an overwhelming support group that helps make the program a success and which appreciates everything veterans and their families have sacrificed. Nicole Stotelmyer, whose husband served with Jeff, has been a volunteer with the program since almost the beginning. “I saw the hard work and sacrifice both Jeff and Laura have given to make this dream a reality and I wanted to help,” she says. “PTSD and suicide is an ugly truth within the military. Brave HEART offers a place for people to find peace and learn that there is a way to climb out of that dark place.”

Jeff and Laura feel a real sense of honor to be able to help these military families. “We try to focus our lives on the long-term goal of always being of value to our community, especially our military community, through service to others,” says Laura. “If we someday can build a bigger barn and expand these services to help more folks, that would be a wonderful end goal for us. But for now, we just want to continue to provide horsemanship experiences to military and veteran families to help enhance the quality and productivity of their lives.”

To learn more about Brave HEART and how you can help, visit www.braveheartriding.org.