How mustangs help Veterans

Equine Therapy program for Veterans with PTSD


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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) involves development of avoidance, hypervigilance, emotional numbing and anxiety after witnessing or being involved in a severely traumatic event.

There are effective treatments for PTSD, and many Veterans have found that  complementary and integrative health methods improve their PTSD symptoms, which can lead to better outcomes of PTSD treatment.

Currently, there are a handful of equine therapy programs using horseback riding to assist with PTSD treatment. Equine-Assisted Service (EAS) facilitators believe horses are especially receptive to those with post-traumatic stress given their status as prey animals.

No randomized, controlled trials of equine therapy have been conducted and there is no standard protocol.

Despite this, Katherine ”Kay” Kerr, recreation therapist at the Hampton VA has developed and implemented one of the first groundwork EAS programs for Veterans along with Steve Edwards, J.D., and Natural Horsemanship trainer since 2013. The program has been successful with no Veteran injuries.

Veterans briefed on therapy program first

Approximately 322 Veterans have completed the Hampton VA Equine Therapy program for free. The Equine Therapy program is held on a weekly basis, year-round, in Smithfield, Va., at Mill Swamp Indian Horses and Gwaltney Frontier Farm.

Kerr orders and picks up Veteran bag lunches. She also explains to the PTSD Veterans the protocol, horse communication, benefits of the program and possible PTSD triggers.

Veteran Jamar Ham participating in exercise “join up.”

She discusses past Veteran struggles, mindfulness techniques and the “all for one concept.”

She also explains how group experiences help heal trauma, providing positive learned behaviors for community reintegration into civilian life.

Edwards, along with children and adult volunteers, greet and hold the horses for grooming to help Veterans acclimate to the environment. He speaks in depth on trust, horse connections, and demonstrates the round ring exercise that Kerr developed for Veterans to model.

Camaraderie provides emotional healing

Veterans all sit together. They proceed one at a time in the round ring to connect with a mustang while their PTSD comrades observe and encourage active participation. The camaraderie of the “All for one concept” helps struggling Veterans push thru their stuck points and provides emotional healing.

In the photo above, Veteran Calvin Smith grooms his therapy horse.

Dr. David Cifu believes the Equine Therapy program and research will prove to be more than just a “soothing distraction.”

Cifu is the Senior TBI Specialist and Rehabilitation Physician at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va.

The program is based on natural horsemanship principles. Veterans with PTSD have tension, anxiety, emotional numbing and distancing. Those symptoms interfere with interpersonal relationships as well as their ability to function at work and in their inner lives.

By nature, horses are “prey animals,” which means they are fearful and do not respond to humans in a predatory manner. Even when provoked, horses flee. In one sense, horses represent the opposite of those living with PTSD. Horses are stuck on “flight,” and Veterans with PTSD are often stuck on “fight.”

Goal is for Veterans to lose anxiety

The hypothesis is that by working with horses, Veterans would experience reduction in anxiety and emotional numbing, improved mastery of their fear responses, and reduction in hypervigilance in a natural learning environment.

A great aspect of the program is that it causes participants to reevaluate the concept of trust. As the horses begin to trust them the Veterans begin to trust the horse and themselves. This is what helps Veterans succeed in life.

To quote a Veteran, “It is a great experience to turn your back on an animal of that proportion and allow it to walk up behind you.”

Another cardinal symptom of PTSD is emotional numbing, which often comes with rigid, motionless facial expressions often destroying relationships. Another Veteran said, “I can hug my grandkids again. They aren’t afraid of me anymore. They say I don’t look mean.”

Further research will scientifically assess impacts regarding mental, social, emotional, physical and spiritual health through complementary therapies, such as this one.

Kerr believe this approach provides a holistic, positive method of assisting the healing process. “I believe we will soon have research to prove the medical benefits of Equine Therapy in helping PTSD Veterans.”

For more information about PTSD and PTSD treatment, visit VA’s National Center for PTSD.

Author

Hans Petersen

Hans Petersen is senior writer-editor for Digital Media, VHA Office of Communications. An Air Force Veteran, Hans also served two years in the Peace Corps and worked for 20 years in broadcasting before joining VA.