As dog companions help veterans suffering with PTSD, so does working with horses. That’s not riding them, though vets can do that too, but literally doing simple training with them as the horses run free in the paddock. Years ago, after suffering a major heart attack at 40, my husband introduced me to horses “from the ground up,” and I understand the wonderful relationship that people can develop with horses. One mare I will never forget. She recognized our car when we drove up the driveway and would be at the gate waiting for my hug. Her way of hugging me in return was to rub my back with her nose. I translated that experience with horses into my first spy novel.
In this article written by Doug Schmidt of the Windsor Star, who himself was embedded with Canadian troops in Afghaninstan for three six-week periods, he captures the interaction between the ex-soldiers and their new “charges.” What many people don’t realize is that horses are highly intelligent animals with no patience for fools. At times it is like communicating at a psychic level with them because they are so sensitive to your every mood. Doug observes how the horses sense the emotional turmoil within the young Afghanistan vets and echo it. To settle them down, the vets must figure out how to lower their own inner levels of emotion to gain the horses’ co-operation. This is another story that can be repeated across Canada if horse trainers will step forward to offer vets similar horse therapy. BONNIE
Work with horses helps veterans with PTSD
By Doug Schmidt, The Windsor Star
Rocky sneaks up from behind and nips the ex-soldier on the behind, the Shetland pony no doubt annoyed that his new friend with the carrots has been ignoring him.
The young veteran of Canada’s decade-long combat mission in Afghanistan lets out a yelp and jumps in response, but then, for the first time this night, drops the tense body language he brought into the gathering and breaks out in laughter.
“Happiness just bit me in the ass,” he exclaims, and the small circle of fellow Canadian vets in this horse barn east of Windsor similarly crack up.
It’s the first real moment of lightness as Country Sunset Stables owner Randy Hamelin and his two assistants put the men, all previously diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), through the paces of what’s known as equine-assisted psychotherapy.
A registered professional counsellor and University of Windsor lecturer, Hamelin is a member of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, a 3,500-member group operating in 40 countries that uses horses in psychotherapy to treat individuals with mental health and life issues.
“The horses mirror their behaviour – if they come in stressed and angry, the horses pick that up,” Hamelin explains. The trick is to get your own emotions sufficiently under control in order to get the horse to co-operate.
Once a month for an hour, Country Sunset opens its doors to the vets, who are given relatively simple exercises followed by a group discussion on lessons learned.
The horses run loose, it’s left up to the participants how they carry out each task, and success usually requires an element of teamwork and improvisation.
Proponents say the EAGALA model is ideally suited to treating combat soldiers, whose military backgrounds and training emphasize task-oriented action over talk. Practical exercises – as simple-sounding as leading a horse from one spot in the barn to another – are solution-focused and emphasize the need for improvisation and adaptability in responding to the unpredictability of the horses. The soldiers learn strategies to overcome frustration and stress that they can later apply in their day-to-day lives.
The Windsor Star was invited to observe a recent session, but under the condition of no photos and no names used unless approved by the individual.
“The horses are very sensitive to cues,” said Michele Brown, one of the clipboard-carrying therapists on Hamelin’s team.
If that’s true, then the cues are disturbing on this night. No sooner are the men given their instructions and the observers withdraw to the sidelines, and Rocky and his two much larger sidekicks – Pebbles, a purebred Arab, and Richard, a quarter horse – are bucking and kicking and “ground-tying” – or circling – the ex-soldiers.
“The men are supposed to be doing that, but the horses are turning that around,” said Brown, jotting down observations. But these guys were soldiers once, and, after a bit of initial confusion and collective deep breaths, decisions are made, the challenge is broken down into small doable tasks, and step by step, the mission is completed.
Quick to pick up on the group’s emerging can-do confidence, the horses become relatively easy pickings for the task.
The exercise leaves the men buoyed, and that’s when they open up, something they admit doesn’t come easy or often.
“I’ve noticed you’re really coming out of your shell,” Wayne Hillman tells Rocky’s friend after the night’s twin exercises.
Hillman, 68, wasn’t properly diagnosed with PTSD until decades after he returned from the Vietnam War, filled with anger. The Windsor man is heavily involved in local Legion and veteran support efforts, and he made sure a young local Afghan vet, Stefan Jankowski, received a proper military salute at his funeral after the 25-year-old succumbed to his demons last summer and killed himself with an overdose of prescription drugs.
“I’m no psychologist, but the stories they tell me … I think (Canadians) would be shocked,” said Hillman.
“What we’re hearing from them is there’s no support … except psychiatrists, and then it’s meds – they don’t want that,” said Hamelin.
Horse therapy works well with soldiers, he said, but there’s no funding for it.
With a family background in the military, as well as ties to soldiers through some of the people he works with at Country Sunset, Hamelin said he and the therapists volunteer their time and offer the monthly sessions with Hillman and the others for free.
At the most recent session, each horse was given a label – sad, anger, happy – and the participants were instructed to lead the halterless beasts to a corresponding area in the barn.
The participating group had veterans from various conflicts including Congo, the Balkans and Iraq. Perhaps hearing that a journalist would be present, only one of the usual four or so Afghan regulars showed up.
The lone Afghan vet who did appear, a relative youngster at 23, said he was traumatized by witnessing close friends blown up and killed and having to attend funerals for comrades barely out of high school. He’s visited regularly by what he calls “the terrors.”
He quickly zeroed in on Rocky, the smallest and gentlest in the stable, and, bonus, prancing in a corner furthest removed from all the others.
The pony was adorned with the “happy” tag, hence the later reference to his being bitten in the backside by happiness.
It was the quip and resulting merriment, and not the exercise per se, that had the intended consequence of getting the participants to open up, offering a brief window into their emotions.
“Right now, I’m missing something, and I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s happiness,” said the young Afghan vet.
Read more: Reference: WINDSOR STAR