Several models of horse therapy, also called equine therapy, are being used for treating PTSD and TBI in veterans. What are these therapies, and how do they work?
Does it work?
Yes, equine therapy works to reduce anxiety, emotional reactivity and impulse control, depression and isolation, and the anger and combativeness that many vets with PTSD and TBI struggle with daily. While most of the research so far has been anecdotal reports, rather than large, double blind studies, the type that science likes, the anecdotal reports have been overwhelmingly positive.
What is equine therapy?
There are several types, and professional groups are developing standards. One type is called on-the-ground equine therapy. Horses are not ridden or required to perform. They interact in a social way. You hang out with the horse and visit. There may be some grooming or feeding or other chores but the main therapy time is you and the horse, getting to know each other.
Riding therapies involve learning to work with the horse from grooming, cleaning stalls, working with leads and halters, and riding. These therapies are especially beneficial for people with balance and movement problems. Carriage-driving is a new type of therapy where vets with significant mobility issues or amputations learn to drive a horse-drawn carriage.
Why does it work?
Horses have similar social behaviors to people–they like to interact and visit, they like to be with others of their kind, they can becompetitive and they can be kind, they feel emotions and act out their emotions in a way we understand. When angry or feeling betrayed, they isolate themselves or act aggressively, as an example.
Horses act almost like an emotional mirror. They directly and immediately reflect the way you are feeling and acting. When we are with a horse, we get immediate feedback about the way our feelings are directing our behavior, and how that influences others. When we feel angry and distracted, a horse responds to that by moving away from us. When we bring our attention back to the present and seek out the horse for company, they respond immediately. Horses live in the moment. If they have a choice, they choose to be happy and at peace. In horse therapy, we use their reaction to us to change our behaviors.
Sometimes the setting is key to the therapeutic benefit. Imagine you are sitting in a quiet meadow with horses, with no traffic, other people, or telephones making noise, and you have nothing required of you other than to be alive in the moment. Horses can be peaceful companions. Over time, we might learn to be peaceful companions to ourselves again.
EAGALA, or Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, is one therapeutic model that uses certified therapists and horse specialists. They have a military-specific therapy model, and their certification program is world-wide.
Many VA hospital systems are using equine therapy from the local community. If you are working with the local VA, check with the Recreation Therapy Department for how to access these services.
The Wounded Warrior Equestrian Program is a nonprofit that supports farms and ranches that provide horse therapy along with horse rescue operations. Started by an Army officer with a background in logistics, who herself used equine therapy to recover from PTSD, this program has developed a country-wide network, so vets can find a program near their homes.
For more information about veterans issues, please contact us.