Horse Therapy also Known as Equine Therapy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Since the revolution Americans fought in 1776, horses have been part of the military. A soldier riding a horse has become a symbol of war and physical courage – an icon of the brave person willing to ride into the "valley of death" to defend home and country.
Now horses again are coming to aid the military but this time, it is to help wounded warriors not in battle, but after they return home. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, which involves using horses to cure psychological wounds, is the newest way to help returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
For many reasons not completely understood, post-traumatic stress syndrome is on the increase among veterans deployed in the Middle East. In previous wars, the percent of soldiers with the disorder was between 7% and 10%; however, among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, that rate is closer to 20% to 25%. Some believe one reason is that all soldiers fill out a questionnaire designed to identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome so that more are now being diagnosed. Other experts believe the nature of the Middle East war, fought without large battlefield engagements but with constant surprise attacks by individuals, is causing the increase.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is particularly effective with veterans and other victims of trauma, who tend to avoid "talk" therapy because their memories are so painful. Many vets with PTSS do not want to admit they have a problem because they fear being stigmatized by mental illness and career-related repercussions. They often refuse the armed services’ typical offer of ten individual counseling sessions over a 15-week period. This is where equine therapy can be helpful.
Although some who take part in equine therapy actually ride horses, the emphasis of the therapy is learning to read and respond to non-verbal communication. Because horses are prey animals, they are geniuses at picking up cues from their environment, especially from other living things. If a participant is smiling but still exhibiting tense and nervous body language, a horse will become confused by the disconnected body language and respond immediately. In this way, a horse provides instant biofeedback that helps the participant learn to be authentic emotionally.
"For post-traumatic stress syndrome, horses are uniquely situated because they are prey animals," said Gary Adler, president of Pegasus Riding, an equine program for veterans in New Mexico. "Their survival depends on being sensitive to smell, sound and movement. These are triggers for people with PTSS. They don’t want to deal with human interaction because they’ve lost trust by constantly dealing with people who want to kill them."
Post-traumatic stress syndrome can cause symptoms such as anxiety, nightmares, moodiness, inappropriate anger, depression, substance abuse, and psychosocial difficulties. Working with horses teaches victims to relax and to adapt their behaviors and body language to the needs of the horse. As one trainer put it, "A horse is 1200 pounds of lie detector. He responds positively to positive words and behaviors, and negatively to negative words and behaviors."
When working around horses during Equine Assisted Therapy, elderly patients can overcome anxiety and depression, work on building self-confidence and non-verbal communication, decrease a sense of isolation, and empower themselves to take on other challenges in their lives. Patients learn how to groom, halter, feed and lead the horse while discussing and processing feelings with a licensed therapist. The size of the horse, its natural inclination to interact honestly with humans and other horses, plus the animal's ability to mirror the nuances of human body language make the horse the perfect animal to allow seniors to conquer fears and meet the physical tests of growing older.
Blue Pearl Project / Oak Meadows Ranch welcomes those with disabilities, elderly and wounded warriors to come and enjoy the ranch, therapy with the rescued horses or those that just want to be around horses.