How the Unbridled Hero Project is Helping to Rebuild Lives

The Unbridled Heroes Project was born out of a wish to save rescued and abused horses as well as help military heroes who are struggling to rebuild their lives and become whole again. Its founders, Amy and Mark Steppe, both veterans themselves, know firsthand the effects war can have on returning soldiers.

“When Mark came home after serving 13 months overseas, I saw what he was going through physically and emotionally, and it was heartbreaking,” Amy says.

After volunteering at the Bergen County Horse Rescue in Mahwah working with neglected and abandoned horses, Amy saw a change in Mark that was remarkable.

“While working with these horses, learning how to communicate with them and watching them heal from years of abuse, they learned to trust us, and it was incredible because at the same time they were actually healing us,” she says. “When you’re with a horse, you learn to slow your breathing and your heart rate, and the horse will mirror that. This is where the healing began for both of us. I watched Mark grow stronger and walk better. It just helped everything.”

During those days, the seeds were sown to start a horse rescue of their own that would also be a wellness center with alternative support programs for military veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tucked behind Rohsler’s Nursery in Allendale, the Unbridled Heroes Project opened last September and is now home to three mustangs, one quarter horse and two mini horses all rescued from kill pens or abuse. They have been working with individuals suffering from PTSD and have also recently partnered with veteran organizations such as Community Hope, New Jersey’s largest nonprofit organization serving veterans with issues such as mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

“It really was the perfect fit,” Amy says. “We have these horses who are coming from extreme trauma or from the wild who have very little trust left. Then we have our veterans who are also learning to trust again, are anxious about the future and worried about the past, and in some special way, they just relate to each other; the connection can be amazing.”

Unbridled’s wellness program consists of weekly two-hour sessions where each veteran is partnered with a horse. They do groundwork, like walking them on a lead around a field over simple obstacles such as a bridge or a tarp. They also learn about grooming and caring for the horses. The second hour is spent in an adjoining field where they participate in wellness activities on their own such as yoga, taught by instructors from Divine SiStarhood who work out of Yoga at the Barn in Ramsey, as well as painting projects and learning meditation.

“We’re giving them tools other than using alcohol, drugs or medication, showing them the importance of living in the moment and that just being outside in the fresh air can be incredibly calming,” Amy says.

When Nick Addesso, a local EMT and volunteer firefighter, found Unbridled Heroes, he was looking for help dealing with traumatic experiences growing up and what he had witnessed as a first responder.

“I connected right away with this group because they were very focused on where I was physically, mentally and spiritually. Horses are very sensitive in terms of your energy as well as your mood. You can’t come in aggressive or dominating; they will sense that and react,” he says. “Just being here I can leave all of my stressors behind and just focus on myself.” 

The barn also has a special visitor who stops by almost every morning.

“My son’s crossing guard, an older gentleman who is also a veteran, often stops by on his way to work,” Amy says. “He just pulls his car up, and I bring a mustang out for him to pet. He’ll talk to her; it just makes him feel good to be around the horses. Their effect is truly amazing.”

According to Mark, this will be a place where rescues and healing will continue for years to come. 

“We’ll keep these horses forever. This is their home,” Mark says. “We plan on saving more and continuing to educate people for as long as it takes. Being with them is healing. It saved me.”

100 Franklin Turnpike, Allendale

201.937.3659, UnbridledHeroes.org

“Not unlike our veterans, these abused animals fall through the cracks. If a human can fall through the cracks, who will care about a horse? We’re here to help in any way we can.” –Amy Steppe, Unbridled Heroes Project

“What is happening to these horses is horrible but a story that needs to be told. While most people don’t want to work with them, I think the most broken ones have the most to offer.” –Amy Steppe, Unbridled Heroes Project

“These horses all have vibrant personalities. Chirpa is the horse I’ve connected with the most, but there are some days where she gets so moody that she won’t let me near her, but she also won’t let any other horses near me.” –Nick Addesso, EMT and firefighter

“We speak to groups about the work we’re doing saving horses, educating them about the laws that need to be changed to protect them.” –Mark Steppe, Unbridled Heroes Project