‘Trail to Zero’ event in Bull Valley Friday looks to fight military veteran suicide

The event Friday aims to raise awareness on veteran suicide rates in international riding events

Veterans ride during a Trail to Zero event in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 2021.

Vietnam war veteran John Gerend said he remembers driving up to the BraveHearts horse farm in Harvard for the first time on Veterans Day in 2020.

A veteran was standing by the road with a horse named Hank. Gerend opened his car window to say hello.

“And Hank just stuck his head right through the window of the driver’s side,” Gerend said. “It was awesome.”

BraveHearts is a nonprofit organization based in Harvard and Poplar Grove that for over 20 years has provided therapeutic services that connect veterans to horses. Their mission is to help veterans find a community and heal through bonding with horses.

One of their events, called Trail to Zero, raises awareness of veteran suicide rates by having veterans ride horses for 20 miles.

This Friday, about 50 veterans will participate in the Trail to Zero event in Bull Valley.

They chose 20 miles based off a statistic that about 20 veterans die by suicide each day. A 2022 annual report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found an average of just under 17 veteran suicides a day in 2020 with just over 6,000 suicide deaths for the year.

Horses are shown to help reduce anxiety, lower heart rates and regain confidence, said Amber Eck, BraveHearts veteran services director.

“They teach mindfulness, they require us to live in the moment,” Eck said. “They’re relatable, especially the Mustangs for the veterans.”

Veterans can have difficulty transitioning out of service and not being a part of a tight-knit community, Eck said. Coming to BraveHeart can help create relationships with people that have similar experiences.

“So many of our veterans have felt lost and they don’t know what their next step is,” Eck said.

Gerend said that he gained a sense of community with fellow veterans and by volunteering at the farms. He volunteers by assisting horses with children with special needs that receive occupational therapy through horseback riding.

“The stories the families tell you, it almost brings tears to your eyes because they are so grateful,” he said. “It’s life-changing.”

BraveHearts’ first international Trail to Zero ride was in June at Normandy, France. The first event was in New York City six years ago.

This will be BraveHearts’ third year riding in Bull Valley. This event is considered a “kickoff ride” so more veterans can participate and ride fewer miles.

“Riding 20 miles horseback is a challenge physically, mentally, emotionally,” Eck said.

Afghanistan veteran Shorty Ogden-Moles is riding 20 miles in New York City this year and did the event in St. Louis last year. She said that she experienced suicidal thoughts about 15 years ago when the VA turned her away, so the Trail to Zero is significant to her.

The 20 miles are exhilarating to be alongside other veterans, but she remembers being sore for the next few days afterwards.

“If I touched one person or changed one person’s mind about taking their life, I’ll be sore for a week,” Ogden-Moles said. “It’s worth it.”