Horses Helping Veterans
Healing Hidden Wounds
By Margaret Evans
“It was 2007 when my ex-girlfriend bought home an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Sozo who had gone through several owners and had many issues,” recalls Cpl (ret) Christian McEachern, CD. “We kept him at a friend’s acreage which was along my commuting route to my work in the mountains. At first I only stopped by to check on him and see how he was doing, but that soon changed. After a few months I was learning about horses from my ex and taking more interest in them. It became pretty clear after a while that Sozo had chosen me as his human, and soon I was riding him and regularly enjoying his company. Up to this point I had no experience with horses but I did have years of leadership training and experience, and those traits needed to be a good leader came in handy when working with Sozo. Basically (it was) a veteran race horse with PTSD and a problem with authority meets army veteran with PTSD and a problem with authority. The rest is history.”
The value of horses as therapeutic animals able to connect with veterans suffering the mental injuries of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has made significant traction in recent years.
Diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and medically released after 14 years of military service, Christian McEachern earned his Bachelor of Applied Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership degree at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He became a Professional Adventure Guide and a Wilderness and Remote First Aid/Survival instructor. Now a dedicated horseman, Christian is also an Equine First Aid instructor. “I’m not sure where I would have ended up if I hadn’t got into horses,” he says. Photo courtesy of Christian McEachern
In July 2015, the Honourable Erin O’Toole, Minister of Veterans Affairs, announced funding for two new research studies on how effective equine therapy is for veterans with mental health conditions. The Canadian Institute of Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) would receive $250,000 to conduct an Equine Assisted Intervention Study. In addition, Can Praxis would receive $25,000 to continue its equine research. Can Praxis’ new research study will build on its 2013 equine therapy pilot study. Both studies will assist in establishing an evidence base on the use of equine therapy for veterans with mental health conditions.
Can Praxis, located in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, is a not-for-profit organization run by Steve Critchley and Jim Marland. Their programs are also operating at WindReach Farm at Ashburn, Ontario. Critchley is a 28-year veteran with close to two decades of conflict management as a mediator. Marland is a registered psychologist and equine assisted learning facilitator with over two decades of experience working with inmates and those in solitary confinement. Can Praxis represents “can” for can do and “praxis,” which is to take a theory and put it into practice.
Since there is little existing evidence on the effectiveness of animal-assisted interventions for mental health, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) is investing in the two-year programs which will provide guidance on when it is appropriate to integrate this type of adjunct therapy into a veteran’s mental health treatment plan.
Can Praxis, based in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, received $25,000 in funding from Veterans Affairs Canada to continue its research on the effectiveness of equine therapy for veterans with mental health conditions. Photo courtesy of Can Praxis
Many people don’t realize the extent to which people with PTSD have a major, serious mental injury that can be terminal. Nothing about it can be treated lightly and the many steps toward a level of recovery are deliberate, focused, and precise. In the three-day equine assisted program that Can Praxis offers, Critchley and Marland will see the veteran more than they would be seen by a therapist in a year.
“When PTSD occurs it becomes a daily occurrence of conflict and crisis in that person’s life,” says Critchley. “No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s going to show up and screw them up and make life miserable. What we are hoping people understand is we want to help them have one successful conversation a day with their spouse. If you have one successful one, you can have two. Then you can build on the success. And the definition of a successful conversation is one where they both walk away satisfied at the end. We help them understand what they are bringing to a conversation. We help them bring the conversation down into smaller, simpler, easier to manage chunk-size pieces and focus on what is actually doable and achievable.”
In the program, military terms are used since that is what veterans relate to. For instance, an immediate action drill is the firing of a weapon and its safe handling. What happens determines the secondary action drill.
When a veteran is having a conversation with a spouse and it starts to go sideways the immediate action drill is to use a safe word. It stops the conversation, allowing them to retrace their steps back to safe ground. The secondary action is that, at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner, they re-enter the conversation to move it forward more successfully.
So where do horses fit into the conversation?
“We have a three-phase program,” says Critchley. “In the first phase it’s all on the ground exercises. Horses are social animals. They need, thrive, crave social interaction. A horse in a field by itself, all day, every day is punishment. Horses truly understand and appreciate social structure. Second, any group of horses will have a built-in chain of command. Guys (and girls) can relate real quick to a chain of command. Again, we use military terms as these guys are vets and we bring these terms into a world they understand. Third, horses evolved as prey animals which makes them hypersensitive. They are able to understand by analyzing the situation around them all the time and they will know immediately if you are an idiot or someone they can push around. Understanding that, the horses become a peer, providing immediate, honest, in-your-face feedback.”
Jason and Courtney Anderson from Ontario have completed the Phase One program at Can Praxis. Photo courtesy of Can Praxis
He says they are helping people get into a place mentally and physically so that the horse can look at them and say you are worth the effort to learn how to trust again. You are worth the effort to learn how to respect again.
“So the horse comes up to the individual and looks at them and touches them. If the horse can do that there is every opportunity that your family can do that.”
A cornerstone of the program is that veterans attend with their spouse, partner, or a family member. This is because they are hurting as much as the veteran. Therefore, they are equals. And the best way to help them is through conversation.
“The reality is every time you are sitting or standing with a horse you are having a conversation,” says Critchley. “Ninety-three percent of a conversation is non-verbal including tones, flections, grunts, groans. Only seven percent of a conversation is made up of words. We will see more words and body language in those three days than a counsellor will see in a year.”
Critchley said that when the human brain is around horses, the brain produces dopamine, the natural “feel good” drug. With PTSD, the more primitive part of the brain gets disconnected from the higher functioning region.
“The dopamine that is produced when people are around horses helps reconnect the primitive part of the brain with the higher functioning part,” he says. “We are using those opportunities where the brain is getting traction to teach people how to have effective communication. Often what we focus on is helping people understand that there is life at the end of the tunnel. As a couple, forget about forcing yourself to come out of that tunnel in one location as it will never happen. Working together as a team you don’t care where you come out as long as you come out of the tunnel into a light where you are both satisfied. And part of getting there is helping individuals understand they are not broken.”
They have had over 120 couples in the program which began in February 2013. They work with eight horses and they consistently change horses around so that their clients deal with different equine personalities.
Each program is divided into three phases of three days each. They have a maximum of six couples. This allows plenty of time to spend with each one. Half the program is theory, understanding communication, and how PTSD affects conflict and crisis. The practical part is communicating with the horses in the arena on the ground. Depending on how each person communicates results in how the horse responds through action and reaction. As horses respond by joining up or following or touching, participants build trust and respect. With that comes self-confidence. By the end of the three days they have worked with horses on ground exercises as a couple.
“One of the exercises we do in a round pen is the join-up exercise,” says Critchley. “They shake a stick and a plastic bag, then drop them and see if the horse comes up to them afterwards. [The analogy is that] spouses realize they are running around carrying a stick. The veterans, when you ask what home life is like, go yea, I’m also running and hiding. It dawns on them that there is more to what they are doing than simply talking.”
In Phase Two, the veterans come back separately, without their spouse or partner. It’s another three-day session in which they learn to care for and ride horses. Through debriefing, they learn that all the things they hold dear are not free, not given. They must work for them. The same goes for recovery. They must work for it.
“So the debrief is focused specifically on what has been working and how they can transfer that to other parts of their life. Through working with the horses, veterans and spouses end up teaching each other. And that’s by design.”
Both Elaine Kearney and Mike Rude from Newfoundland have completed Phase One, and Mike went on to complete Phase Two. Photo courtesy of Can Praxis
In Phase Three, the couples come back together and this time they ride into the mountains for a three-day retreat-style trip with day trips and debriefs around the campfire.
“Once again we’re talking about that dopamine connection. It’s connecting the primitive part of the brain with the higher functioning part. That opens the doorway for us to go in and do some teaching.”
It’s not so much the experience that is the goal. It’s what the veterans and spouses learn from the experience and the takeaway skills usable in day-to-day life. So there are some very specific teaching points that they work towards.
“It’s rather humbling in how well it’s been received by everyone. The success rate has been remarkable. At the beginning of the program at least one person is afraid of horses. By the end we have to physically stop them taking one home.”
An important value of the program is that people working with horses gain self-confidence. That creates self-esteem. Self-esteem produces pride. People with pride don’t kill themselves. This program is about working with an animal that will give instant feedback that can’t be argued with, and the horse gives it from a place of pure honesty.
Horses at Can Praxis waiting for dinner to be served. Photo courtesy of Can Praxis
The challenge of PTSD is that people aren’t aware of the persona they give off. They aren’t always aware of their sense of anxiety or tension or impatience. But the horse picks up on this immediately. People are then able to see what they are bringing to the conversation because the vibes for frustration are constantly there as an undercurrent.
At Hope Reins in Ontario, their War Horse Program focuses on veterans also suffering with PTSD. The program was launched in July 2014 after five years of planning. They have served 56 veterans in the seven intakes they have conducted and when this article was written there were eight veterans in the program.
“For our veterans, progress in the program is a very personal and individual experience,” says Alison Vandergragt, director of the War Horse Program. “This is definitely not a linear process as everyone enters the program at a different stage of the healing process. Participants are fully accepted where they are at by their peers, the facilitating team, and the horses. Some choose to focus on developing everyday coping skills, a ‘toolbox’ so to speak, as they perceive themselves as just trying to survive another day. Others are looking to find meaning in the things they have experienced. Some need a reason to get out of the basement once a week. As they progress through the program, they have the opportunity to introduce the horses to their families if they choose.”
She says that they work with horses and ponies of all breeds and sizes and animals must be at least five years of age. They are selected for their personalities, keeping safety in mind. Some of the horses have been surrendered by their owners because they can no longer take care of them. Most are rideable, as riding is an important component to the program.
Photo : Kathy Thomas/JoshOli Photography
Photo : Kathy Thomas/JoshOli Photography
For veterans in the War Horse Program at Hope Reins in Ontario, progress is a personal and individual experience, as each participant enters the program at a different stage of the healing process. Since July 2014, the War Horse Program has served 56 veterans and currently there are eight enrolled. Photo : Kathy Thomas/JoshOli Photography
“Each horse has its own special quality by just being itself and who it is because of the things and people and experiences it has encountered in its life. A horse or pony that has experienced neglect or mistreatment by either an adult or child; or a horse that has had a lengthy career in the show world; or a horse that has been raised on a farm in a herd with plenty of love and affection, all bring something very unique to the arena. Just as every client is different, so are the horses we use. The connections that clients make with a horse or pony are strongly tied to the life experiences of both.”
She says that the veterans are feeling more relaxed, less anxious, and sleeping better. Self-confidence and self-worth are restored. They feel they can engage with their families and friends more effectively, and are finding meaningful relationships not just within the group, but outside of the program as well. For those who state they feel numb, often that personal connection with the horses allows them to “feel” again. Participants are also supporting each other both inside the program and out. Something as simple as a few of them meeting for a coffee in between the weekly sessions can break the cycle of isolation.
As successful as many programs are, Critchley cautions against people wanting to get into equine psychotherapy to help veterans with PTSD.
“Good intentions fill body bags,” he says. “What people don’t grasp is that veterans with PTSD have a huge, serious mental injury that in many instances is terminal. So getting in there to do some equine therapy and doing it wrong can create more problems. That’s really scary. For some people with PTSD, if they are not talking they are going to die. Now we are dealing not just with veterans with suicidal feelings but spouses as well. We are very nervous about people jumping into this with good intentions.”
The Can Praxis program is funded by Wounded Warriors Canada, the national funding partner that pays for flights (veterans and spouses from all over the country), hotels, food, and programming costs so that veterans do not pay for the treatment themselves.
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