CAMBRIDGE, Ill. Megan Sundeen learned from experience how horses can help people.
It was her own family experiences that led to the beginning of her first horse therapy program in 2012, and she then developed Sundance for Our Soldiers (SOS) in 2016, which she provides at no cost to military service members and their families.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the staff at SOS is hosting a free Buddy Check event for veterans and their families, beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 18, in partnership with Random Acts of Veterans from the Quad-Cities and surrounding areas.
“We want veterans of all ages and their families to join us to learn how horse therapy works for their fellow comrades,” Sundeen said.
The event is sponsored with a grant from the Kewanee Area United Way and a donation from the Iowa-Illinois National Defense Industrial Association, which is celebrating 100 years.
The Buddy Check will begin with a horse therapy demonstration at 4 p.m. and will then include a bonfire, fellowship and free gifts.
Those interested in attending should call 309-945-7257. Transportation and special accommodations also are availble, Sundeen said.
“We have invited nearly 40 veterans organizations to the event on May 18, including VFW groups and American Legion groups from as far away as LaSalle, Peoria, Galesburg, Aledo, Quad-Cities, eastern Iowa and surrounding areas," Sundeen said. "SOS and Random Acts of Veterans hope to bridge the generation gap between veterans by creating an event to build camaraderie. It is sad that the younger generation of veterans is not joining these veterans organizations. As a result, many VFW groups and American Legion organizations have had to close their doors and sell their buildings due to lack of membership.”
She said SOS offers "a unique approach to mental health that does not involve horseback riding. This type of horse therapy focuses on the mental health and the well-being of individuals, while horseback riding therapy addresses occupational and physical therapy.”
With equine-assisted learning, veterans work through activities with the horse that relate to the challenges and goals in their life, Sundeen said. ”Horses are a prey animal that have lived over 3 million years because the animal is capable of reading its predator in order to stay safe. That innate ability also works with people.
“These amazing animals are very hyper-vigilant and capable of mirroring the body language they pick up from someone in their environment,” she said.
With the freedom to move around in their natural state of being, horses will interact according to what they pick up from someone’s thoughts or body language.
Sundeen has been trained by the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) to read the horse’s body language that people can then relate to in their own lives.
“A soldier’s self-discovery takes place in the moment where it is easier to remember the strategies after they have left that are needed to live happier, healthier lives,” Sundeen said. “This effective type of therapy has the potential to develop solutions quicker than traditional-talk therapy. In each encounter the horse is capable of communicating whatever is most prevalent at the time.
“We have seen results in that soldiers of all ages learn to manage anger, acquire coping strategies for PTSD and discover problem-solving techniques for stress. SOS also offers an opportunity to work through grief and loss of fellow comrades.”
Sundeen herself discovered firsthand the power of horse therapy. She described her childhood as “challenging in a male-dominated and controlling home.
“I am the daughter of a Korean War veteran, Charles (Sundance) Sundeen, who lived with the signs and symptoms of PTSD and Combat Stress,” she said. “Growing up in a home filled with combat stress was a challenging life not just for the soldier, but the family as well.”
Her father began training racehorses after returning from Korea, and his daughter saw how he became drawn to the horses.
“I became my father’s caregiver when his Parkinson’s disease progressed, and after he died in 2010 our family dynamics shifted and became an ugly scene,” she said. “It was as if none of our family knew how to communicate and function around each other without my father’s control and dominance.”
Months later, she was on her knees praying, asking God to help her find a way to forgive her father for all the hurt and pain she believed he caused in her life.
“I sat up, opened my eyes and there it was as if I could touch it, a vision God intended for me,” she said.
From that moment the Sundance Growth and Learning Stable was born, and soon after she realized how horses could help hurting soldiers.
“Our soldiers need help, 20 per day are committing suicide, and many are unemployed and several are homeless.”
The stable has changed her life and Sundeen said she hopes to “pay it forward with our soldiers and their dependents.”