As a young child that was “horse crazy” I longed to be able to ride a horse. I would read books like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, The Saddle Club series and many Louise L’Amour novels. I would daydream of racing through a meadow with the wind blowing off all the troubles that seemed to cling to me.
I recall one such book which I treasured growing up. One that explained equine evolution which occurred over a geologic time scale of 50 million years. It seems that man has had a long association with equine and canine. Therefore it makes sense that we would look to these animals in times of mental, emotional and physical need. “Horseback riding has a long history as a therapeutic intervention. In the fifth century B.C., it was used in Greece to help rehabilitate wounded soldiers. The English also used horseback riding to treat soldiers injured in World War I.”1
Recently, I was able to participate in an equine program entitled H.E.L.P. (Heroes, Equine, Learning, Program). The program is operated by Ryan Theriault (www.tranquilacres.ca) who is also the Ottawa area co-ordinator for EAGALA. (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association).
The EAGALA model was founded in 1999 and is considered Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). EAGALA is the leading international non-profit association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs.
The program is experiential for participants by utilizing horses for mental and behavioral health therapy and personal development. The participants learn about themselves and others by participating in ground work activities with the horses. Discussions follow amongst the participants, regarding processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviors, and patterns.
“EAP supports the approach that “ground work” provides the client with opportunities to generate solutions as the horse is a component of the process rather than the primary focus (Kersten & Thomas, 2004). This approach also allows for greater transparency of issues related to communication and relationship between the horse and veteran. An EAP practitioner and a horse handler are part of the team, but the basis of therapy occurs between horse and veteran.”2
The Canadian Government has been supportive of research studies on the effectiveness of equine therapy for Veterans with operational stress injuries (OSI) like post traumatic stress (PTS). Back in July 27, 2015 the Honourable Erin O’Toole, the former Minister of Veterans Affairs, announced funding in this area. “Ultimately, the research will provide information on the effectiveness of this treatment for symptom management, and guidance as to its appropriateness for Veteran’s mental health treatment.”3
In 2014, the U.S. Veteran’s Affairs made their number one strategic goal of providing personalized, proactive, patient-driven health care to Veterans and their families dealing with operationals stress injuries.4 Acknowledging the choices an individual has along their healing journey empowers them to achieve their greatest health and well-being. Rather than focusing on the diagnosis the whole health care model focuses on the person, what matters most to them and what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose in order to live their lives fully.
The three day, Ottawa area peer based equine program I attended was for any service member, veteran or first responder who faces post-traumatic stress and/or operational injuries. The group was small and a perfect size for us to quickly develop a level of trust amongst each other as well as the staff. The staff included a registered psychotherapist and two equine specialists trained in EAP, who provided a positive experience for all involved which also allowed all of the participants to feel physically and emotionally safe.
It was revealed to us through our activities with the horses that the horses mirrored our own emotions. As a result, you soon realized that by being authentic and revealing your true self to the horse that a sense of bonding would soon follow. I felt that I not only developed a relationship with the horses we worked with but also with all the other participants and staff.
Besides the equine sessions, time was allotted for meditation, yoga, art, nature walks, as well as social interaction. Self-care importance was stressed with the development and sharing of self-care activities. Each participant was encouraged to develop a self-care plan that they could implement at home.
The accomodations were geared towards the comfort of all the participants and the home made meals were excellent. As someone who feels strongly about ownership of my PTS symptoms and self management, I found this H.E.L.P. retreat to be a perfect compliment to my professional therapy sessions. Overall, the experience was extremely positive and gratifying. It definitely allowed for stepping outside my personal comfort zone.
As a former police officer, suffering from chronic and severe post-traumatic stress, just getting there for myself was a challenge. Pushing past your own comfort zones is challenging for anyone with an OSI, whether it is simply sometimes just walking out our front door, driving ten minutes to an event or over eight hours to an event, such as I had to do in order to participate in Ottawa.
However, it is this exact challenge that helps us make the personal changes we require to find our “new normal”. These opportunities allow us to shape, mould and build our lives into a new normal that can be bigger and better than ever before our psychological injuries took hold of our everyday experiences.
Author: Lynne Rusk, Administrative Director, Badge of Life Canada. Lynne Rusk was a police officer for nineteen years before her own diagnoses of post-traumatic stress took over as the result of her own shooting incident. Also, Lynne is married to a police officer who was shot in the line of duty and suffers from post-traumatic stress. Today, Lynne advocates, educates and works passionately to eliminate the stigma around post-traumatic stress through her efforts with Badge of Life Canada.
To review our equine activities for mental health resource list see http://badgeoflifecanada.com/traumapros_therapists/alternative-supports/equine-therapy/ To have your program listed contact email@example.com
1. Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Horseback Riding by Dr. Allen C. Bowling, MD (internationally recognized neurologist),
http://www.neurologycare.net/hippotherapy-and-therapeutic-horseback-riding.html ON 04.27.11 • IN CAM • BY BOWLING
2. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy for Combat Veterans with PTSD By Nancy Masters, BS RN
3. Veterans Affairs Canada Archived – Government supports further research on equine therapy, Dr. Alice Aiken, Director, Canadian Institute of Military and Veteran Health Research, http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=1007369
4. Capturing Personalized, Proactive, Patient-Driven Care Across VA, Health for Life, http://www.va.gov/PATIENTCENTEREDCARE/docs/2014-VA-OPCC-AnnualNarrative.pdf