September 11, 2001 was a tragic day in U.S. history. The past 15 years of military response has put at bay terror attacks on U.S. soil and has led to the capture and death of many ruthless individuals who intended to harm citizens of the free world. These wars have also yielded tragedy in the form of countless veterans suffering with depressive and anxiety disorders, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Fifty percent of returning veterans will suffer with psychological issues and every day 22 veterans take their own life. Unfortunately, typical evidenced based therapies have proven not to be highly effective for suffering veterans.
The majority of veterans are resistant to therapy in the first place and on average it takes a veteran ten years to get help. Suffering combat veterans have higher instances of poverty, domestic violence, criminality, substance use disorders, unemployment, and suicide than the general public. The good news is that more and more veterans are seeking non-traditional, experiential counseling methods because they feel more comfortable with these alternative modalities. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is one modality that shows significant promise in treating the psychological issues combat veterans face.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is simply conducting a psychotherapy session in a farm environment using horses to facilitate conversations about change. We use horses because they are inherently honest and will interact with people in such a way as to reveal patterns of behavior that may be counterproductive in a person’s life.
For example, a veteran might comment that the horse does not like her because it walked away. This might lead to feelings of isolation, sadness, and helplessness, and the veteran might become anxious and depressed. The therapist would challenge that assumption by asking, “Why else would the horse walk away?” In reality, the horse might have walked away because of many reasons, including finding a good patch of grass to munch on or wanting to see his heard mates in a far off pasture. This might help the veteran see that the horse’s walking away may have had nothing at all to do with her and that she projected her negative internal thinking patterns about herself onto the animal. In looking at her pattern of thinking, the veteran might be able to see that this pattern exists in other areas of her life, including at work and in relationships. This pattern might negatively affect personal and work relationships and diminish her quality of emotional and psychological living, triggering higher anxiety and depression levels. Learning about these patterns and having the opportunity to talk and reflect is a powerful pathway to positive transformation. These conversations seem to be much easier in a paddock with a horse than in a confined office setting. Horses not only help facilitate conversations, working with horses is a good way to help veterans learn how to regulate emotion and behavior, as being calm around a horse is mutually beneficial for both horse and human!
The veteran ultimately learns how to positively reframe her negative thinking patterns and how to regulate her emotions and behaviors, while working with the horse. The intent is that these lessons learned in the paddock will transfer into life and the client will be able to find psychological and emotional freedom leading to better quality of life and a sense of wellbeing.
For more information about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, please visit these sites:
Video: What is equine assisted learning and therapy? https://youtu.be/rd3Az0VviVU
Video: Camp Resilience https://youtu.be/Ba6OzEUeMVU