Horseback Ride Through NYC Heals Vets, Families
NEW YORK, NY — Sometimes horsing around is therapy.
For Gold Star father Ken Boyd and U.S. Army veteran Mary Ballengee, equestrian therapy has been instrumental in survival.
“When you become a Gold Star parent, it’s probably the darkest, deepest day of your life,” said Boyd whose only child C.J. served as a U.S. Marine Corps corporal. He died in Afghanistan. “We found some solace through equine therapy, working with horses. [It] truly saved my life from suicide and other bad things that go on and happen.”
Boyd’s wife joined a Gold Star mothers retreat hosted by BraveHearts where they went horseback riding. Boyd saw progress in his wife’s spirits, but he was reluctant to join. Eventually, she encouraged him and he has never looked back.
“In horses you have to build trust, and the horse will trust you, you trust the horse. It’s just this amazing thing that happens with a horse,” Boyd said, adding he now volunteers several days a week with BraveHearts, which is a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the veterans suicide rate of 20 deaths per day.
“I love going there because we do retreats for veterans and you see some of these kids that come in that they don’t want to be there. They get off the bus from the VA and they don’t really care about a horse, they don’t do anything. Two hours later they have a smile on their face, there’s brightness in their eyes, they’re talking, they found something that trusts them, that they can trust. It’s just amazing to see a transformation in how they want to come back and how they want to do things,” said Boyd. “So, we’ve dedicated our lives and our future to pay it forward on our son’s behalf to help all the other veterans, to help take care of these kids when they come back.”
Boyd will be join Ballengee and many others on BraveHearts’ “Trail to Zero” – a 20-mile horseback ride around Manhattan on Saturday, September 15 to raise awareness of the high veterans’ suicide rate. Participants will ride through the heart of New York City, including Times Square, Central Park and the World Trade Center. They both hope to bring that trail down to zero.
Ballengee served from 1975-78. She battled with trauma from active duty for nearly two decades before she was introduced to equine therapy with a fellow veteran.
“I was really shut down and this mustang, he saved my life,” said Ballengee who now goes by the nickname “Mustang Mary.” “He actually taught me many things. He taught me how to breathe out, how to slow down, he taught me patience, he taught me not to be so hard on myself. He gave me life, itself.”
Mustang Mary felt a bond with Pecos instantly.
“In the process of me gentling him, and letting down my walls for the first time in 40 years and discovering myself, I also felt a responsibility that he had to be auctioned off and I could not imagine that but I had to have him believe in people,” Ballengee said of Pecos, which was initially owned by the U.S. Government.
Mustang Mary said the night Pecos was set to be auctioned, she was planning on killing herself. But, the person who bought Pecos gave the horse to her and she was rejuvenated.
“[Pecos] just told me you have to do something. You have to do something for the other mustangs and you have to do something for the other veterans such as yourself,” Ballengee said.
Since then, Mary helped launch an all-female veterans riding group in Texas where she lives with Pecos. She is now a PATH certified instructor through BraveHearts’ training and certification program for veterans.
Mustang Mary will proudly ride “Mighty” around the Big Apple “Trail to Zero.”
For her and Boyd, the task is quite mighty, but they’ve saddled in for a determined equestrian mission to help our heroes like they were healed through the power of horse.