How a Jersey Couple Harnessed the Healing Power of Horses

Amy McCambridge-Steppe and Mark Steppe founded Unbridled Heroes Project in Allendale to comfort veterans and trauma victims with rescued mustangs.

Veteran Kevin Henry takes comfort in Shiloh, a rescued mustang at the Unbridled Heroes Project. Courtesy of Amy McCambridge-Steppe

When Amy McCambridge-Steppe and Mark Steppe married in 2009, they shared a dream of opening a sanctuary for abused animals. That vision was realized in September 2018 when they founded the Unbridled Heroes Project in Allendale—but first, they had their own healing to handle.

Amy, 39, and Mark, 36, military veterans living in Ridgewood, were dealing with Mark’s post-traumatic stress. His unit had lost 18 men during one year in Iraq. “The war had come home with him,” says Amy. “I couldn’t help him forget what he had been through.” To make matters worse, Mark was in constant pain from lesions on his spine, caused in part, they believe, by military use of depleted uranium. No medication worked, so Mark numbed the pain with alcohol.

During Mark’s ordeal, Amy worked as a soccer trainer and cared for the couple’s sons, Jack, now 10, and Torin, 17, from Amy’s prior marriage. Then hardship struck again. Amy’s debilitating headaches were traced to a benign brain tumor.

Just when things seemed hopeless, Amy visited a rescue in Mahwah, where she met Phoenix, a horse so traumatized that no one could get near her. Amy visited every day, talking to Phoenix. It took five months before she could touch the horse, but during this time, Amy’s headaches eased. Doctors are taking a wait-and-watch approach to Amy’s tumor; she says Phoenix made her feel like getting out of bed every morning. 

“We want to revive the unbridled spirit in both our rescued horses and our heroes.” —Amy McCambridge-Steppe

While Amy was spending time with Phoenix, Mark met Saturn, another rescue. Saturn was considered dangerous—but not for Mark, who gained a feeling of calm as he bonded with the horse.  

The time seemed right for Amy and Mark to chase their dream. They rented pastureland and launched the Unbridled Heroes Project with three wild mustangs obtained from other rescue and training facilities. 

The Steppes now are helping others heal. Clients include two veterans, two EMTs and several children who have experienced trauma. Kevin Bombace, 22, a Marine who has leukemia, says that Hope, one of the Steppes’ mustangs, made a difference in his life. “She took away negative thoughts so I can live in the moment,” he says. “We formed a real bond.”

“We want to revive the unbridled spirit in both our rescued horses and our heroes,” says Amy, so they can “find solace in each other.”

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