How Equine Therapy is Being Used to Help Veterans with PTSD
Millions of people serve in the United States armed forces, and each year, thousands are deployed. For many, the experiences they have while serving, on deployment, or in combat can be traumatizing. After enduring a traumatic event or experience, many veterans develop a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be a debilitating condition that prevents individuals from fully functioning in their daily lives. Traditional therapy is not always effective in treating veteran PTSD. However, there are some alternative mental health programs that are seeing success. Here is more on how equine therapy is being used to help veterans with PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD “is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault." When someone with PTSD has symptoms, they may become anxious and fearful and feel as if they are re-experiencing the traumatic event or events that caused their condition.

Veterans with PTSD often struggle with nightmares, recurrent thoughts, extreme anxiety associated with hypervigilance, avoidant behavior, substance abuse, and depression. In some cases, the individual will visually and auditorily perceive the traumatic event in an unrelated location. In other words, the person will re-experience what happened to them as if it is occurring in real-time regardless of their present environment. For instance, someone with combat-related PTSD may hear unexpected firecrackers or a loud noise and react as if they are in a combat situation. PTSD symptoms can be so severe that it’s difficult for individuals to work or otherwise function in their daily lives.

Equine Therapy for Veterans with PTSD

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, equine therapy, a mental health treatment method that involves humans interacting with horses, is showing promise in treating military veterans who have PTSD. The study results were published by the primary researchers for the Man O' War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. The authors, Dr. Prudence Fisher, a research scientist at New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Dr. Yuval Neria, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, founded the equine therapy project. Sgt. Matt Ryba helped recruit vets for the program. The study assessed the program for veterans at the Bergen Equestrian Center in northeastern New Jersey.

The Man O' War Project was founded in 2015 by philanthropist and businessman Ambassador Earle I. Mack. Mack, a veteran, and thoroughbred owner/breeder began the project out of concern for veteran mental health and after learning about equine-assisted therapy groups. He wanted to start a program to help veterans and scientifically evaluate the effectiveness of this form of therapy for this group. The organization’s mission “is to explore the use of and scientifically evaluate equine-assisted therapy to treat/help individuals who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.” 

The equine therapy model is built on the participant building trust with the horse as they work through their mental health symptoms and issues. In a recent article, Dr. Neria commented that “Both PTSD patients and horses are preoccupied with ongoing concerns about trust and safety. This innovative therapy facilitates bonding, overcoming fear, and re-establishing confidence.” Protect Man O’ War co-researcher Dr. Prudence Fisher stated that “Through horse-human interaction, veterans can relearn how to recognize their feelings, regulate emotions, and better communicate, as well as build trust and come to trust themselves again—all valuable tools to help them succeed with family, work, and social relationships.”

During the study, participants worked in groups with mental health professionals, equine experts, and project staff. Participants had weekly 90-minute therapeutic sessions with the horses and a designated mental health professional to discuss their PTSD without relating information about their source trauma. Project Man O' War researchers report that the program is seeing success, with more than 50 percent of study participants showing a marked reduction in PTSD and depression at post-treatment and at the three-month follow-up.

Dr. Fisher commented that “Our findings that both PTSD and depressive symptoms significantly improved are very exciting because we demonstrated that our treatment is a viable alternative or supplemental treatment for those who suffer from PTSD.” The researchers also determined that, unlike some other PTSD programs, veterans have responded positively to the treatment and have completed the protocol. The program was also developed to be shared with other groups. The project Man O’ War protocol manual is designed to work with any evidence-based treatment (EBT) and can be used by others in the equine therapy field. 

Sgt. Matt Ryba, project director of community outreach and education for the Military Family Wellness Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, related that "We saw with the study that a lot of people who were not amenable to going into traditional therapy because they had an idea of what mental health therapy was because they had this kind of ingrained.” He commented that some of this reluctance was probably due to the military’s culture of servicemembers telling themselves, “I don't need help. I'm a military service member. I'm stronger than this kind of a thing." However, according to the findings, equine therapy may be an effective alternative therapy within this veteran population and a stepping stone towards more traditional mental health treatment.

If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental disabilities. To schedule a consultation, contact us or call (509) 991-7058.
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