New Strides in Equine Assisted Therapy for Veterans

U.S. Army photo by Jason Kelly - from flickr


Those of us fortunate enough to spend time with horses know how much they can challenge us, as well as how healing that time spent can be. For people like me who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), horses can have a significant hand in our healing.

All across the country, equine assisted therapy (EAT) programs help people with mental illness, and now the Veterans Administration (VA) is making financial support possible by earmarking $1 million for EAT through its Adaptive Sports Grant. This marks the first time money has been set aside for EAT specifically. That money is being distributed to national and regional partners, including Egala (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), an international nonprofit that incorporates horses into mental health treatment.

The VA estimates that 25-30% of returning military veterans suffer from PTSD, but that around half do not seek treatment for the condition. Many who do are not helped by mainstream treatments and practices like exposure and talk therapy.

Enter horses, with their potential for building trust and relationships through grooming and interaction with people who are struggling to connect to their own emotions and to other people. The Man O’ War Project at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center is “the first university-led research trial to establish manualized guidelines for the application of [EAT] for treating veterans with PTSD and to examine the effectiveness of this promising new treatment for veterans,” according to CUIMC.

The group is led by Dr. Prudence Fisher and Dr. Yuval Neriah, who want to establish clinical data around the efficacy of EAT for veterans with PTSD, and to provide guidelines for this form of therapy. They note on their website that anecdotal evidence suggests that EAT provides benefit to people with PTSD and other mental illnesses, “no clinical evidence exists to determine if EAT can effectively treat PTSD or how EAT should be most effectively administered.” Their research intends to gather that evidence.

According to Dr. Fisher, PTSD is “a fear-based disorder that occurs after somebody’s had a significant trauma, where they either feel their life is threatened or they’re going to be hurt physically in some way, or somebody they’re close to has a life-threatening experience.” She emphasizes that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, there is no way to predict who will develop the disorder, and that there is no trait in a person that makes them more prone to it.

Dr. Neria adds that PTSD is “a combination of symptoms that involve recounting the trauma, primarily in an involuntary way, in the form of intrusive symptoms, as well as avoiding reminders of the trauma, both in thinking and in feeling and behavior.”

Photo © Wounded Warrior Regiment on Flickr

Standard treatments for PTSD have a high attrition rate. Exposure therapy–being forced to face the source of the trauma until the patient is desensitized to it–is demanding and painful. Talk therapy, while very effective in many cases, still carries stigma amongst many communities of people, and some veterans are not ready to talk about their trauma even in the safety of a therapist’s office. However, after working with horses in EAT for two months, some veterans find they are more equipped to participate in talk therapy.

The Man O’ War Project website details why horses are valuable in treating PTSD:

    • Horses are prey animals and naturally skittish (hypervigilant), presenting an opportunity for veterans to recognize and understand fear responses.
    • Horses are naturally sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues, and thus provide good feedback to the veterans about how they are communicating.
    • Horses are herd animals, who live in a social structure and seek out social relationships.
    • Horses exist “in the moment,” and are forgiving, patient and nonjudgmental, allowing opportunities for veterans to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Unlike dogs, who grant love unconditionally, relationships with horses must be earned.

One must build trust with a horse for it to welcome you into its world. Through EAT, veterans re-learn how to build trust and how to trust themselves again – valuable tools to help veterans succeed with family, work and social relationships.

  • EAT isn’t simply about making veterans “feel better,” it’s about helping them increase emotional awareness and the ability to regulate their emotions.

Veterans who participate in the project attend one 90 minute group session per week for eight weeks. In sessions, a mental health professional, an equine expert, two horses, and a group of veterans work together in “drawing connections between what the horses may be doing, thinking, or feeling, and their own symptom. Through this process, the veterans increase emotional awareness and the ability to regulate emotions, and learning to more effectively interact with the horses, and by extension, with people in their lives.” As part of the study, the researchers follow up with the veterans after three months to determine the long-term effects of the treatment.

The Man O’ War Project’s research (which is independent of the VA) and the VA grant to expand EAT services has the potential to help a great many veterans–and horses. The wider the scope of the project, the more potential jobs there are for horses who may need to retire from a working life or who are not physically sound for riding, as most EAT programs seem to focus on unmounted interactions with the horses.

If you or someone you know is a military veteran living with PTSD and would like more information on The Man O’ War Project, click here. To find out more about mental health programs offered by the VA, visit the Veterans Resource Center here. Egala serves veterans and those unaffiliated with the military, and you can find a program by searching here.

About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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