Skip to comments.Horses as therapists: helping veterans heal (Breakthroughs occur, sometimes in a flood of tears)
Posted on 06/13/2009 10:38:14 AM PDT by SandRat
Generations ago, horses were used to wage war. Now they're being used to heal the psychic wounds of war. In an trend still viewed as strange by much of the mental-health mainstream, some Southern Arizona counselors are using the beasts as co-therapists to treat troops suffering from combat trauma.
"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Are they kidding?' " said Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Richard Quinn, who returned from Iraq in 2007 with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But after a recent weekend spent communing with Kairos, a hulking black draft horse, Quinn is a believer in the power of equine-assisted psychotherapy.
Almost immediately, he said, "I started feeling more relaxed and at ease" a boon because Quinn, who served as a convoy commander overseas, has had few peaceful moments postwar.
"My wife says I cry in my sleep," said Quinn, 48, of Bisbee, whose convoys were hit twice by roadside bombs. "At night I wake up soaking wet, and I don't even know what I dreamed about."
Animals have long been known to have a calming effect on people witness therapy dogs that visit hospitals and nursing homes to soothe the sick. And horse-riding programs, such as those offered at Therapeutic Riding of Tucson, have been used for years to help people with disabilities improve balance and motor functions. But equine-assisted psychotherapy is something different, experts say.
Unlike house pets, horses are prey animals. As such, they have keen abilities to take the emotional temperature of their environment, sensing distress in other creatures, which, in the wild, might mean danger is near.
"Horses have a unique ability to mirror human emotion," said Dr. Nancy Coyne, a psychiatrist who works with the Epona Center, a horse ranch in Sonoita that offers such treatment.
"They read body language and expressions. They can pick up subtle changes in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration."
Using horses to treat mental-health issues is relatively new in the world of psychotherapy so new that it tends to raise eyebrows among traditionalists.
"Certainly, the mainstream thinks it's a little odd," said Coyne, who recently treated Quinn and several other local soldiers in a pilot program with Fort Huachuca, an Army post 75 miles southeast of Tucson.
Putting a troubled person in a pen or pasture with a therapy horse evokes responses from both beings, practitioners say.
For the humans, the impact can be more powerful than years of traditional talk therapy.
"I've had clients who can sit and talk for years about their problems and how much they'd like to change. But when they get out with the horses, things start to happen," said Toni Leo, a Sierra Vista psychologist.
Leo has treated many current and former military members and spouses for issues such as grief, anxiety, depression and childhood trauma. She's been using equine psychotherapy in her private practice for about two years with horses from a sanctuary she runs.
The therapy sessions don't involve riding, Leo said. Typically, the human clients are assigned a task for example, they're given a halter and lead rope and told to "go catch a horse."
The interplay that follows gives clues to the client's inner state.
"It's not about catching the horse," Leo said. "We want to see how the person problem-solves and what comes up in the interaction."
Sometimes the horses avoid the humans, or come in close and crowd their space. Sometimes they'll lie down and thrash about, or sigh and rest their chins on the clients' shoulders. Or they'll gesture with their heads toward various sections of the clients' bodies.
Leo asks her clients to imagine whom the horse might represent to them, and what the horse might be trying to say.
It's at this point that breakthroughs can occur, sometimes in a flood of tears. At times, Leo said, she's seen horses "wrap their necks around someone who is crying, sort of cradle them almost like a hug."
"It sounds like magic, but it's not. The horses are just being themselves," Leo said. The method encompasses elements of other mental-health treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, she said.
Leo plans to expand her work to include war veterans with combat trauma at a new horse therapy center in Hereford, about 10 miles south of Fort Huachuca. The Hero Hearts Equicenter is expected to open this summer and also will offer therapeutic riding programs.
Therapeutic Riding of Tucson also may branch out into equine-assisted psychotherapy for veterans, depending on demand, said Leslie Esselburn, executive director. One of TROT's staffers recently became a licensed counselor trained in equine psychotherapy, which will allow the agency to offer such care, she said.
At some local programs, the price tag is steep. At the Epona Center, for example, a weekend stay with one follow-up visit costs $1,200 per person. The Hero Hearts program plans to charge $1,500 for three months of weekly sessions. Leo, on the other hand, charges $110 an hour in her private practice not far off the going rate for traditional psychotherapy.
The higher-priced programs are trying to raise donations to offset the cost, so troops in need can attend for free. But fundraising has been a challenge so far in the depressed economy.
To date, only a handful of research studies have examined the effectiveness of equine psychotherapy and none looked at the success rate for treating combat trauma. The study samples were small and drew mixed conclusions. Still, the method is gaining favor based on rave reviews of those who use it.
The American Psychological Association, for example, two years ago approved continuing-education credits for psychologists who take specialized training in such treatment. Equine therapy "was judged and found to have some validity," said Kim Mills, a spokeswoman for the association, which represents psychologists nationwide. Prescott College, about 200 miles north of Tucson, offers the nation's only master's program in equine-assisted mental health.
For now, the impact on veterans is being measured by soldiers such as Staff Sgt. Joshua Wright.
Wright, 29, a former infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division, returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with nerve damage, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that it turned him into a recluse.
He now is assigned to a medical unit at Fort Huachuca and recently took part in the horse-therapy weekend with Quinn and several other local soldiers and spouses. Wright, a Casa Grande native, was skeptical when he heard about horse therapy. "I thought, 'Yeah, right. Sure. Whatever.' "
In two days at Epona, he and other veterans learned breathing techniques to calm themselves and were able to see the impact it had on the animals. Once humans reduced their anxiety, the horses would cooperate, he said.
In one exercise, Wright and his wife, Heather, stood on either side of a horse, leaning into the beast as they linked hands above. They could feel their own hearts beating, and the horse's.
"It was good for us to be here," said Heather Wright, 37, who has watched her husband struggle to cope with nightmares and outbursts.
Joshua Wright said the experience "taught me to listen to my body instead of just reacting."
"It was nice," he said, "to start to understand what's going on with me."
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4138.
Horses are some of the sanest people I know.
I’m sure you know vets who might benefit.
I just picked my husband up at the end of Biking Across Kansas. He’s a Viet Nam vet. I remember the lack of options for those guys. There were three combat injured Iragi vets on the ride - two quads and one paraplegic. All three powered their recumbent bicycles with their arms and hands. The ride was 560 miles - as much as 80 miles in one day. Mr. Mercat has always called it road therapy. That’s what it was for them I’m sure.
Following the Gadsden Purchase, prospectors and ranchers began moving to the new southern portion of the Arizona Territory in increased numbers. The Chiricahua Apache, who had battled fiercely against the Spanish and Mexicans in the area, posed a threat to Americans in the area. The United States Army decided a new installation was needed to counter the Chiricahua threat and to help secure the border with Mexico.
On March 3, 1877, Captain Samuel Marmaduke Whitside, accompanied by two Troops (Companies) of the 6th Cavalry, chose a site at the base of the Huachuca Mountains that offered sheltering hills and a perennial stream. After the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, the Apache threat was essentially extinguished, but Fort Huachuca was kept open because of its strategic border position. The base was home to the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th Cavalry Regiment for twenty years. It was used as a forward logistics and supply base during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916-1917.
In 1884 the 4th Cavalry was ordered to Arizona to combat the Apache. By May 1884 the Regimental headquarters was located at Fort Huachuca along with Troops B, D and I. The rest of the Regiment was stationed at army posts throughout the eastern half of Arizona.
I have worked with therapy horses as a volunteer. Amazing things happen to people on/around horses (other than being bitten). My current homestead - Belly Acres - is too small to hold horses, but my sister is nice enuf to allow us visiting privileges with her herd-ette.
Tell ya what, I am just flat out in love with our Father for providing this remarkable world with such amazing animal life. I think about it everyday.
AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!
Convincing accounts attest to animals being in Heaven, as well.
I pray with all of my heart that this is so...it is a bit hard to picture Heaven being perfect without living thing we loved not being there.
Horses are very sensitive creatures. They know when people are in emotional turmoil. Some horses will try to take advantage of that, but others will respond quite gently towards people who are suffering.
Heaven is beyond what we can conceive of in terms of wonderful, I believe, as Scripture teaches.
Here’s some 4 Corners area info re such horse therapy stuff:
13 Annual Sheep is Life Celebration
Free Events & Fun for the Whole Family
Friday and Saturday, 19-20 June 2009
Navajo Preparatory School Campus
1220 West Apache, Farmington, NM
Friday, 19 June 2009
9:00 a.m. Welcome and Opening Remarks
Edison Wauneka, Chair, Navajo Preparatory School Board
9 a.m. 4 p.m. Ongoing Activities
Dibé Nitsaa Guild and Four Corners Weavers Guild
activities include the Sheep to Loom and Sheep to Shawl steps
skirting, carding, washing, dyeing, spinning and weaving
experience both the Navajo and the European styles of wool processing
Navajo-Churro Sheep Association Hospitality Tent.
Share, spin, and learn more about the Navajo-Churro Sheep.
Sheep Story Booth, Lore of the Land.
Record stories, family memories, and oral history about all things sheep. All ages and all cultures welcomed. Participants receive a copy of their recording.
4-H Youth Camp. Felix Nez, Diné College Land Grant Program.
Youth and Elders Day. 4-H Sheep Show. Wool grading with Patricia Quintana.
Workshops and Lectures.
Check at the Information Booth for specific locations.
10 a.m. The Future of Fort Wingate Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory. Dr. Lyle McNeal. Learn about the plans for creating a sheep heritage site at historic Fort Wingate, New Mexico, 15 miles east of Gallup. Find out how to support the vision for Dine’, Hispanic, and Anglo sheep and wool cultures of the Four Corners Region.
10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Financial recordkeeping for sheep producers, farmers and ranchers. Tilda Woody. Many sheep producers and weavers do not receive the benefits they deserve. Learn how to keep records and qualify for refunds and tax breaks.
10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Horse Therapy Program. Prunell Charley and Brian Johnson.
Learn about Sage Memorial Hospitals new program using horses as a tool for outreach therapy. Discuss the potential for a Sheep Therapy program.
It all sounds just wondrous. Creatures have a gift, and when experienced, it can send our hearts leaping and put laughter on our lips. And I mean it.
QUITE SO! QUITE SO!
Reagan used to say the outside of a horse does an awful lot of good for the inside of a man.
Horses are also being used with double amputees to approximate the hip action in the normal gait.
Most astounding to me is the use of dogs with autistics.
I love this.
Horses can fix most anything. I have seen them do great healing in the lives of their people. I know some young women who would not be alive except for the effect of their horses.
We have one locally in Northern CA. Does great things for kids with behavioral problems. I understand they are also going to expand to veterans.
“The Horse Program encourages children and families to move through challenges and regain life’s natural balance. We serve children who have experienced difficulty in their home, community, or school life. The kinship between horse, rider, and support staff opens doors for life-long transformations.
“In each session, the horse program blends natural principles and the desire for exuberance. The powerful presence and generous heart of the horse allows for a natural opportunity to overcome fear, develop confidence, and gain mutual respect.
“In our program, riders discover that they can develop strength and character. This shift in self-image gives them the skills necessary to meet life’s challenges and begin to develop self-responsibility.”
I have owned many horses in my lifetime and most were very intelligent and had a sixth sense about my feelings. Some were knotheads, but we won’t write about them.Hah
Have lived around both kinds, too.
Do you have any now?