Pairing Horses with Our Hurting Veterans

Noble animals are helping our former military find a new mission in life — and heal from some of the most difficult circumstances ever

by Anne Poulson | Updated 09 Nov 2017 at 8:07 PM

Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” As a lifelong equestrian and horse lover, I’ve experienced firsthand the unique bond between horse and human that Churchill so artfully articulated.

It is this belief in the horse-human relationship that has led to a number of equine-based programs to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the signature disorder of many returning veterans. PTSD can be a devastating condition, one that affects a person’s work, family relationships, and ability to interact with the world on a daily basis.

A quick look at the statistics is frightening:

  • Up to 30 percent of veterans are affected by PTSD.
  • Each day, 20 veterans die by suicide.
  • In the U.S., 18 percent of all suicides are veterans.

Yet half of all veterans with PTSD don’t even seek treatment. Of those who do, only 20 percent complete their treatments. Why? Because the last thing a veteran wants to do is sit in one-on-one or group therapy. Traditional therapies can be overly demanding, stigmatizing, or simply too painful, as veterans are asked to share their deepest traumas — which leads to high dropout rates.

These veterans need new alternative treatments to help them lead healthy and productive lives.

I'm confident horses can help.

Veterans and horses have more in common than one might expect. They are both hyper-vigilant — veterans because of their service in combat zones, and horses because they are prey animals. Horses are sensitive to human emotion and behavior, sending cues that humans can recognize to better understand their own behavior. Horses themselves may have also suffered from trauma, adding an additional level of commonality with veterans with PTSD.

In addition, veterans and horses share a "mission mentality." Soldiers go from mission to mission, and when they return home, they often feel an absence of purpose. The same is true for horses, including retired racehorses, which are accustomed to "working." After the track, they need a second career, a new purpose. So equine therapy helps not just veterans, but horses, too.

Related: Horses' Healing Hooves

While anecdotal evidence exists of the positive effect horses have on veterans with PTSD, no one really understands the science of why or how horses help, or how equine therapy should be applied. Without a research-based understanding, equine therapy for veterans with PTSD will never achieve the breakout status as a treatment it needs to reach the thousands of veterans who may benefit from it.

A group of distinguished researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and Ambassador Earle I. Mack, himself a veteran of the U.S. Army and equine aftercare advocate, have come together to tackle this problem by creating the Man O'War Project — the first and only university-led clinical research trial to determine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy for veterans with PTSD and to establish uniform guidelines for its application.

So far, the Man O' War Project has produced the first-ever 100-page standardized manual for the application of equine-assisted therapy (EAT) for veterans with PTSD, and is currently clinically testing the manual with groups of veterans at an equine center in Leonia, New Jersey.

Related: PTSD Can Happen to Anyone — It's Not a Sign of Weakness

Under the supervision of specially trained mental health therapists and equine specialists, veterans with PTSD go through a series of ground-based interactions with therapy horses, including a retired racehorse named Crafty Star. These interactions help the veterans reacquire vital life skills by understanding how their behaviors, emotions and actions impact the horse, and therefore others in their lives.

One vet enrolled in a computer class and says, "I'm doing things I never thought I'd be able to do again."

The clinical results of the research have been extremely positive, with veteran-participants expressing great enthusiasm for the program. Unlike traditional therapies, the Man O' War Project does not directly address the veteran's trauma — the vets are not asked to "relive" traumatic events. This frees up the veterans' minds to focus on better understanding and regulating their own emotions and behaviors and to enjoy the surroundings of a horse farm.

One army veteran of the Iraq War who went through the program was struggling in his life and job prior to the therapy; he had thoughts of self-harm at times. After the program, he gained the clarity he needed to find the career that was right for him and reports that he has learned to manage and work through his negative emotions when they arise. "I'm in a good place now," he says.

Another veteran was unable to leave his home by himself because of his PTSD. Since going through the program, he leaves his home freely and even rides the NYC subway. He enrolled in a computer class and says, "I'm doing things I never thought I'd be able to do again."

Related: These Military Skills Make a Difference in the Real World

There are countless stories of veterans with PTSD, and new treatments cannot wait. Through its research, the Man O' War Project aims to provide its treatment manual to equine programs around the country, so veterans who need a new alternative can get the treatment they deserve.

Anne D.W. Poulson serves as president of the Man O' War Project and is based in Washington, D.C. She practiced law in Washington and is former president of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association and former chair of the Virginia Racing Commission. Learn more at www.mowproject.org.

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