Horse and Human Trauma Survivors Help Each Other Heal

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Photo courtesy of Andrea London

BY ANDREA LONDON

Each year, the BLM conducts roundups to capture thousands of wild mustangs in the Midwest and Western United States. No matter what your thoughts are on the practice, it’s a hard experience for the herds. Low flying helicopters frighten the horses into stampedes and chase them for miles. Foals struggle desperately to keep up with their mothers. The terrified creatures are guided into cramped, congested enclosures where they languish, destined to merely exist. Some remain there for months or even years. Approximately 32,000 formerly free roaming horses currently live in these squalid conditions. A few lucky ones are adopted, trained, and go to homes across the country. 

There are many organizations dedicated to finding alternatives to this practice. Managing population growth with birth control and finding purpose for existing horses provide avenues for humane solutions to overpopulation. But one creative way to give these horses a new purpose involves Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) for veterans. 

In September 2019, Checkpoint One in Doswell, VA presented a three-day clinic. Under the supervision of a licensed mental health therapist and professional horse trainers, veterans and first responders were paired with wild mustangs in an Equine Assisted Therapy Program. 

The horses were brought in from out west, Bureau of Land Management wild mustangs. There were four of them—all less than 2 years old—one of whom had been born in captivity. None of these horses had any experience being handled by humans. The goal was for the horse trainers to demonstrate and teach the participants how to gentle the wild horses.

In times past, horse trainers would talk of breaking horses. Some extreme techniques were employed in order to make the horse a working partner. These techniques often used great force and physical restraint to tame the wild horse. The concept of gentling was introduced to move away from the harsh training methods, and to create a bond borne of mutual respect and willing engagement. The two program trainers were each expert in the manner of gentling wild mustangs. Each horse was assigned to a team of one trainer and two program participants.

Photo courtesy of Andrea London

A huge, covered arena was divided into two sections. At the far end, the horses were kept next to each other in individual holding pens waiting for their turn. Nearer to the spectators was a large round pen which provided the work area. The pens were connected to the work area by a clever and intricate series of fences and gates, which provided chutes for the horses to follow. They were motivated to go by a person simply blocking the wrong way choice; at times the person would wave his/her arms to encourage the horse to move toward the designated space. 

Wild mustangs are rather small horses. These fairly diminutive horses are not as physically intimidating as some larger breeds. However, they are wild and unpredictable animals who found themselves in strange circumstances. Each one was trying to adapt to his/her predicament. Their personalities were as varied as the people interacting with them.  

The session began with a beautiful little colt. His body was a shimmering bronze with a long flaxen mane and tail. He was as unsure and unapproachable as he was pretty. He raced through the chutes to the work area, apprehensive of his destination and anxious due to the separation from his horse buddies. When he reached the round pen, he frantically dashed around the perimeter in search of an opening. He clearly wanted to find the exit. After some minutes, he stopped, breathing hard.

The trainer entered, and the colt faced her. He planted his feet and stood still, panting, nostrils flared. The participants watched intently to see how the horse and the trainer would interact. These were novice horse people, but even the more experienced spectators observed silently, not knowing what to expect. Maybe the colt would turn and bolt? Or maybe he would try to keep the trainer away by charging at her? 

This first encounter between human and wild animal was so important and would reveal so much about each one. The trainer slowly took a few steps toward the center of the round pen. There she stood, silent and motionless, arms at her sides, casually glancing into the distance. The young horse resumed his fearful gallop and tried to stay far away from the human who now shared his space. Eventually the wary colt slowed down, exhausted from his struggle to find safety. His heaving breath gradually grew softer and he began to show some interest in the trainer.  

Entrance to the arena. Photo courtesy of Andrea London

When he took one tiny step toward her, she stepped back, inviting him to come forward again. They continued in this way for some time, the colt stepping forward and back, in a classical approach avoidance conflict.  Moving closer to the trainer created anxiety for the colt, but his interest produced a desire to approach the unknown person. When the colt consistently stepped toward the trainer, he was rewarded by being allowed to return to his friends. This was the colt’s first encounter with a person and it was quite successful.  

With the trainer’s calm and neutral demeanor, he was able to let his guard down and allowed his curiosity to overcome his fear. The trainer and the two participants on her team continued this and other exercises with the colt over the remainder of the clinic. By day three, the colt stood quietly while the people went to him; he sniffed their outstretched hand and did not flee. He was not quite ready to be patted or stroked, but that would come with time.

The use of horses in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is well accepted and research has shown EAT to be an effective alternative to traditional mental health therapies. EAT offers a realistic, experiential approach to promote cognitive reframing and mindfulness. Veterans who have participated in EAT programs reported very positive benefits on their PTSD symptoms and coping skills. Wild horses and veterans partner to engage in a healing journey.  

Sadly, in December 2020 Checkpoint One shut down its operation due to lack of funds amidst a global pandemic. This is a great loss to two communities – those dedicated to saving the wild mustang as well as those which provide EAT to veterans, their families and first responders.

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