New and effective ways of treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder are 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 as equine-assisted therapy, uses horses to promote psychological, occupational, physical and spiritual healing in 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 promote open, trusting and nonthreatening physical and emotional connections between both groups. These connections breed safety, patience and loving feelings, all which are critical to recovering from post-traumatic stress.
Horses also have a tendency to be keenly aware of potential dangers in their environment to the point that they are often "on-guard" and ready to react when threatened — 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 happening fast. 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 Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, where veterans participating in a 90-day treatment program at the facility spend time at a nearby farm interacting with horses.
A number of benefits have been noted, such as reduction in levels of anxiety and stress, improved mood, and a newfound sense of peace and meaning. Similar results have been seen in clients at the Big Heart Ranch in Malibu, California, run by a civilian nonprofit. Trained therapists and rescued horses are positively affecting 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 post-traumatic 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.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.