The week preceding Veterans Day, Bull Valley Equestrian Center underwent a makeover intended to benefit the veterans program it hosts, but the project proved to touch the hearts of everyone who helped.

Patti Gruber leases the facility where she runs a horse training and lesson business, but the farm is also home to Operation Wild Horse – Heroes Equine Leadership Program. Gruber started the program to connect veterans and active-duty personnel with mental health and human development treatment options.

“This program offers vets and active-duty [personnel] the opportunity to understand the healing power of horses,” said James Welch, president of Veterans Release and Relief, the organization that oversees Operation Wild Horse.

He said when Gruber initially approached him with her idea for the veterans program, he said, “I really don’t think horses can help. But I was so wrong. … I’m living proof.”

He explained horses mirror their human partner’s emotional status, and they can have a very calming effect on people. It’s not just about getting on a horse, but an outlet to come to the barn, hang out and enjoy the camaraderie. Participants enjoy a sense of community, and the farm setting allows vets to literally take a breath of fresh air.

Rick Gill, McHenry, served in the Marine Corps out of high school. He’s been involved with Operation Wild Horse since February.

“I saw this was a diamond in the rough. This program is a place where vets can go to be a family … a chance to be part of something.”

Always looking to build the program and make improvements, Gill, lead rider for Operation Wild Horse, reached out to his friend, Geri Quirk-Planken, manager of Home Depot in McHenry, to ask if the store might be able to donate some lumber for repairs to the arena. The conversation resulted in the recommendation to make BVEC the recipient of the annual District 145 Team Depot Celebration of Service event.

Every year between Sept. 11 and Nov. 11, the Home Depot Foundation funds events, with each district choosing a project which will benefit veterans.

“It’s a great feeling to give back to those who gave for us,” said Ed Ward, Home Depot district team co-captain.

The BVEC project took about two months of planning, beginning by evaluating the scope of the work to be done with the funds available.

Rob Zielinski, who works for Home Depot in McHenry, installs flooring at Bull Valley Equestrian Center Nov. 10. | Independent Photo by Whitney Rupp

“We asked what would benefit the veterans the most,” said Ward.

A small group of volunteers spent the week of Nov. 6 doing prep work, culminating with the big workday Nov. 10 when nearly 75 Home Depot employees spent the day painting, staining and putting finishing touches on the project.

Work done included replacing the kick boards surrounding the indoor arena, adding new panels on the upper walls of the arena, remodeling and enlarging the viewing area and building custom tack lockers in the veteran stabling area. A retaining wall and veterans tribute area were built outside with drainage work to be finished next spring.

“Amazing,” was all Gruber could say about the project. “Originally, we thought they were just going to replace a couple of boards.”

She praised her training and lesson clients for sticking with her and keeping the business side of the stable going, allowing her to establish Operation Wild Horse as a nonprofit 501(c) (3).

“They put a roof over the program,” she said.

Gruber also expressed her amazement with the additional generosity that seemed to snowball once the plans for the Home Depot project were announced. The owners of Westside Tractor Sales pitched in to donate excavating work to resurface the arena. Others made donations to the effort including food, dumpsters and portable restrooms.

“It’s gaining momentum, and it’s very exciting,” she said.

Addressing the group of volunteers gathered Nov. 11,  Gill expressed his appreciation to everyone who came out to help. He reiterated the importance of the program to his community, citing the high incidence of suicide.

“I hope we save a lot of veterans,” he said.

Welch thanked the volunteers as well and said the improvements made during the work project have taken an already inviting environment, freshened it up and made it a lot more inviting and cheerful. He explained that building new lockers was significant to the people who will use them.

“If you leave something behind, you’ll come back to it,” he said. “It gives you a sense of pride.”

Operation Wild Horse organizers invite any veterans or active-duty military personnel to join them at Bull Valley Equestrian Center, 605 S. Valley Hill Road, Bull Valley, from 8 to 10 a.m. each Saturday to observe or participate in team-building exercises and be part of the community that’s been established.

For information, email or call 847-561-8194.

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