How Horse Therapy Can Help Veterans

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A woman veteran works with a horse.
A veteran works with a horse. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

There's something special about the moment a 2,800-pound draft horse connects with you that requires you to be completely yourself. It is the moment that kicks off a true, honest and humbling relationship that makes you feel like the animal is bonding with your spirit or soul.

Those bonding moments continue as the relationship begins to pull the "real you" out again after years of either having lost it or hiding it as you mask the pain from the experiences of war and violence, a problem especially apparent among the tactical professions.

The success of horse therapy is largely due to the nature of the animals with which the veteran and equine therapist are interacting. Therapy horses are nonjudgmental and do not have expectations or motives toward the people with whom they connect. And horses have a keen ability to understand the attitudes and behaviors of the humans they meet.

What Is Veteran Horse Therapy?

Also known as "equine therapy," veteran horse therapy is simply an experimental treatment involving interactions between a veteran and a horse.

I was first exposed to horse therapy when I visited Boulder Crest Retreat (with locations in Virginia and Arizona), a veteran-focused, all-expenses paid program aimed at post-traumatic growth.

The exposure to horses was easily the most impactful for me and many other veterans, and I was very impressed with the program. There are many programs available for veterans to experience this type of therapy.

A similar program is War Horses for Veterans out of Stilwell, Kansas, which offers an all-expenses-paid, three-to-five-day equine bonding experience and networking program for combat veterans from across the country. Veterans come to the War Horses for Veterans farm, meet up with old members of their battalion, bond together and also groom, train and ride the horses for a weekend. At the end of the visit, they network and are introduced to job opportunities to help them get settled back into civilian life.

To date, the foundation has helped provide numerous jobs for the attending veterans. And the best part is that each veteran's experience is completely paid for by the foundation. Another great thing about the program is that participants can return as mentors to fellow veterans as often as they want. 

 

Benefits of Veteran Horse Therapy

According to CRC Health, horseback riding or equine therapy has been successful in helping patients show marked improvements in the following areas:

  • Assertiveness
  • Emotional awareness
  • Empathy
  • Stress tolerance
  • Flexibility
  • Impulse control
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Self-actualization
  • Independence
  • Self-regard
  • Social responsibility
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

Horses and veterans are similar in a few very important ways. Though the horse cannot speak, it is keen to understand a person's actions and body language. Both the veteran and the horse tend to be hypervigilant of their surroundings and potential dangers; both can use the actions and body language of others to determine situations.

The horse also can sense a veteran's pain, anxiety and fears, and is able to react to those feelings it is perceiving to steady the veteran's issues at that moment. I think, in a way, the horse can sense the sacrifices of the past and willingness to sacrifice for others in the veterans. The horses are willing to put their trust in such a creature, and a relationship between horse and veteran is built on that.

Horse Therapy References (Not Just for Veterans)

Horse Play Therapy. Horse therapy is playing a role in successful therapies for kids with congenital birth defects or who have been victims of violence, as well as adults with neurological disorders.

 

Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) for Veterans study. This study shows that (EAT) may be a beneficial treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD. The study demonstrated improved ability to work and perform daily tasks and a reduction in the number of days of inefficiency.

Equine Therapy Group. A great resource for action-based therapy programs like Equine Therapy.

 

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