New and effective ways of treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is a priority for governmental and civilian agencies across the country. Medications and traditional talk therapies are effective and have dramatically changed the lives of countless veterans. For some, however, these treatments don't work. And in the case of medication, the side effects often outweigh the benefits.
Equine therapy, also commonly referred to equine-assisted therapy, utilizes horses to promote psychological, occupational, physical, and spiritual healing with individuals suffering from a variety of emotional and physical ailments. Its use with service members and veterans suffering from PTSD is gaining momentum.
Experts in equine therapy believe that the many shared traits between horses and humans promotes open, trusting, and non-threatening physical and emotional connections between both groups. These connections breed safety, empathy, patience, and loving feelings all which are critical from recovering from posttraumatic stress. Horses also have a tendency to be keenly aware of potential dangers in their environment so much to the point that they are often "on-guard" and ready to react when threatened. This is not unlike veterans suffering from PTSD. Hypervigilance is the heightened awareness of potential hazards in one's environment and it's a hallmark symptom of the disorder.
Although equine therapy is generally not considered a "traditional" treatment for PTSD the acceptance of this innovative approach into mainstream psychology is occurring rapidly. In fact, dozens of Veterans Affairs medical centers are using horses to help veterans suffering from a variety of emotional and physical conditions. One notable example is the program at the Edith Nourse Rodgers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts. Veterans participating in a 90 day treatment program at the facility spend time at a nearby farm interacting with horses. A number of positive benefits have been noted to include reduction in levels of anxiety and stress, improved mood, and a new-found sense of peace and meaning. Similar results have been seen in the civilian non-profit organization Big Heart Ranch in Malibu, California. Trained therapists and rescued horses are positively impacting the lives of many veterans and their loved ones.
It's unlikely that mainstream treatments alone can address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress and related conditions. Thinking outside the therapy box is critical as is investing in research and program development for novel treatments like equine therapy.
For more information on equine therapy with veterans watch the recent video by National Geographic.
*A version of this article was originally published in Dr. Moore's column "Kevlar for the Mind".