Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images North America
Sgt. Owen Powell of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn leads out a horse for therapeutic riding.

Horses helping heroes

Psychotherapists use equine therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sgt. Owen Powell of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn leads out a horse for therapeutic riding.Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images North America

Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have a new way of coping with their trauma: horses.

PTSD, an anxiety disorder that occurs for some after they have experienced a traumatic event, can affect anyone. The syndrome is most recognized for its impact on those who have served in the military, with symptoms like flashbacks, bad dreams, depression and being “on edge”.

Horse therapy, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, is gradually becoming more accepted as a means of treatment for PTSD in returning combat personnel due to its high resonance with the military culture.

“EAP is often a more appealing form of therapy, because it mirrors other training and military experiences,” wrote Dr. Joseph Lancia, a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Ctr, on his Wounded Warrior Resources webpage. “Instead of sitting in an office talking (which often can feel confining and stigmatizing); in the arena or pasture with the horses, something active (physical and psychological) is experienced.”

Lancia, a Distinguished Fellow in the American Psychiatry Association, maintains Windhorse Farm in Hilton, New York where he offers EAP services. He is author of "Taming the Wild Horse: Using EAP in Assisting the Transition from Combat Soldier to Civilian," a manual for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and similar groups and individuals who are interested in treating psychologically injured veterans.

EAGALA is one of several organizations around the world working to improve the mental health of individuals through EAP. It offers certification for horse trainers and psychologists who would like to offer the treatment at their farms. Founded in 1999, the non-profit now has over 3,500 members in more than 35 countries.

Unlike most would imagine horse therapy does not involve riding. Instead, patients are told to carry out tasks while a horse trainer and mental health professional standby.

“For example, we might hand a lead and halter to an inexperienced horse person and ask him to catch and halter a horse — or we might ask a couple to work cooperatively to saddle a horse, only allowing one of them to talk and the other to work as the hands for the couple,” said psychotherapist Nancy Willbern.

Willbern, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and is certified through EAGALA, offers EAP nearby at Red Horse Ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas. There she works with equine expert Lynne Dickinson to provide mental and emotional transformations for a variety of clients.

Willbern is a firm believer in the idea that horses are "truth-tellers," which is why she incorporates them in her practice. “The benefit in working with horses is that they are natural mirrors of the energy brought into their space,” she said.

In other words, if a horse is being stubborn or defiant, it means the patient is. Individuals are forced to change themselves to work well with the horse and at the same time, learn about themselves.

Although knowledge of EAP is steadily growing -- it has appeared on the Dr. Phil show and Military Channel -- hundreds of thousands of veterans still remain unaware of the treatment.
For example, Dickinson and Willbern have yet to apply horse therapy to any military personnel. “We would love the opportunity to work with both the vets and/or their families,” said Willbern.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, over 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffered symptoms of PTSD, meaning 34.5% of those deployed were afflicted.
Of those who served in Operation Iraq Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom through October 2007, an estimated 226,000 returned to the United States with PTSD according the RAND Institute.

Currently, the main treatments for soldiers with PTSD are psychotherapy and/or medication. Psychotherapy involves talking with a mental health professional through a series of six-to-twelve week sessions. Anti-depressants Zoloft and Paxil are also approved by the FDA for treatment.

Horse therapy fits well with the accepted psychotherapy treatments, Lancia said. After horse tasks are complete, patients sit down and talk with the psychologist to go over what was learned. Most importantly, it adds an experiential aspect which is often more appealing and effective for the hands-on soldier, he said.

“I think it is a valuable form of treatment for this population and [the soldiers] think so, too, given feedback from their time at the farm,” Lancia said. “I hope it will become more available to military folks and families.”

If you would like more information on EAP, visit http://eagala.org or contact central Texas providers Willbern and Dickinson at www.redhorseranch.net.