Equine Therapy for Veterans with PTSD

Charlie Contla and Joker, his equine friend

Charlie Contla and Joker, his equine friendLast June, I met Charlie, an Army Vet who was out walking with his service dog, Indiana (Indi). During our conversations, the subject of horseback riding was brought up and Charlie mentioned that he wanted to get back in the saddle but had not been on a horse for some years.

I then mentioned that my husband Don and I had Arabians who we trained for Endurance riding as well as Joker, a quarter horse & boarder. I asked Charlie if he would be interested in mentoring with us and providing Joker with some much needed exercise. Charlie enthusiastically replied, “Absolutely!”

During the past 9 months, Charlie has shown a passion for horses and working with them and quickly excelled as an equestrian. Under Don’s guidance, he quickly developed excellent horsemanship and riding skills and has also become Don’s valued apprentice. Charlie shared that working with horses has been very therapeutic for him. Mentoring with Don, an experienced horseman, has helped Charlie gain more confidence, rebuild trust, improve his focus, and develop a positive attitude. This has helped Charlie to find constructive ways of dealing with his PTSD.

Horses have given Charlie a new lease on life. After hearing his story, I realized just how much!

Charlie is a 38 year old Army Vet who served as a combat medic in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was responsible for treating countless causalities in combat theaters. Charlie was an exceptional medic who performed emergency treatments to soldiers in the heat of battle.

For example, Charlie has performed an emergency tracheotomy in the midst of fire, re-inflated punctured lungs and patched up bullet holes while being shot at himself. When he began describing “LR” (limb retrieval) duty, I hollered out, “CHARLIE, too much information for me!” After hearing about “LR”, I felt like I was developing PTSD symptoms myself.

I asked Charlie, “ How on earth did you deal with all those horrors?” Charlie replied, “ I was able to do my job as a combat medic because I was able to shut down all emotion!” His own problems didn’t surface until a few years after getting out of the military.

For example, he began experiencing extreme discomfort (anxiety) in large crowds as well as hypersensitivity to smells and noises. Certain stimuli began to trigger memories of past trauma. For example, Charlie once smelled burned oil during a dust storm. These triggers caused him to feel like he was back in Iraq and revert to a combat mode of hypervigilance.

Charlie stated that many physicians in the VA healthcare system would prefer to prescribe drug therapy for Veterans with PTSD. Charlie does not like taking medication for his PTSD. He prefers to seek out alternative treatments such as horse therapy, hiking, and scuba diving. So why horses for Vets with PTSD?

According to Dr. Laurie Sullivan-Sakeada, a Utah based Clinical Psychologist and leading practitioner of EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy), horses are prey animals, and like those who have been to war, rely on their heightened sense of survival. They react to and mirror the emotions of others, directly, without words. Horses respond negatively to negative emotions. They respond positively to positive emotions and they have no ulterior motives. “They are just there”, says Sakeada, “providing non-verbal feedback.”

Dr. Sullivan-Sakeada goes on to say that “horses are therapeutic and interactive tools that speed up the therapy process substantially. Dr. Sakeada notes that one session of EAP in the barn is equal to five sessions “on the couch.” In EAP, horses are used as tools for military veterans to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. It recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species”.

Charlie expressed that soldiers are trained to become hypervigilant (aware) especially when in combat. They also get used to experiencing a high adrenalin rush. After leaving the service many soldiers such as Charlie are still hypervigilant and miss the adrenalin rush. No longer experiencing that high adrenalin can cause extreme depression which enhances symptoms of PTSD.

Working with horses has helped Charlie use his hyper awareness in a constructive way rather than destructive manner. When out riding, Charlie is constantly scanning the environment to keep his horse and himself safe. Charlie is also hypervigilant when performing ground work exercises. If he isn’t totally focused, the 1,200 lb. horse he is responsible for might step on him.

As stated by Barbara MacLean, lead therapist at New York VA Medical Center, “As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant until they learn they are not in danger. Unlike with many dogs, who trust unconditionally, horses require humans to work to gain their trust. Because of their own hypervigilance, veterans with PTSD easily understand and can relate to the trust and hypervigilance in a horse.

Other symptoms of PTSD are emotional numbness, a feeling of “not being in one’s body”, and a lack of awareness of body language. (in Charlie’s case his emotions were shut down). Horses understand communication primarily through body language, so the veterans with PTSD learn to become more aware of their bodies, their body language, and expression of emotion through their bodies. They must become aware of the horse’s body language. Becoming aware of the horse’s body language helps the individual become more aware of a person’s body language, too”.

“Horses are also herd animals and look for a leader to follow. Some horses want to be the herd leader. A horse and its human are a herd of two. One of them will establish itself as the alpha (as the leader). If it’s not the human, it will be the horse. The veteran must be assertive without becoming aggressive and show confidence to gain the respect of the horses and become the “herd” leader.”

Horses and Charlie’s service dog have helped him become more in tune with his emotions, body language and an ability to control aggression. Indi, his dog serves as a buffer between him and other people. Indi lets Charlie know when others are approaching from behind. This gives Charlie enough time to respond rather than react aggressively to sudden surprises. Charlie has learned to respond rather than react when his horse spooks or misbehaves.

As most equestrians know, horses mirror their rider’s emotions. Horses are highly in tune with our body language. Most veterans who work with horses learn that if they become impatient, their horse will probably react negatively. If they become angry, the horse may become upset and unload them. If one remains calm, the horse is more likely to follow suit. These lessons from the horse can be transferred over to one’s interactions with people.

Working with horses can help veterans with PTSD learn to listen to what the horse is telling them about their approach and interactions not only with animals, but also with people. Charlie shared that riding horses has provided him with the adrenalin rush that he missed when leaving the service. Horses have provided Charlie with the challenge of learning something new.

Working with a mentor has also helped Charlie rebuild his trust in people. The physical exercise involved with horseback riding has also enhanced his ability to relax. As stated by Charlie, “Focusing on my horse and listening to a mentor has helped me get thoughts of trauma out of my head”. He is so busy focusing on this 1,200 pound animal and learning new things that he doesn’t have time to think about past trauma.

PTSD can lead to feelings of depression and worthlessness. As reported by Charlie, 22 veterans a day commit suicide due to depression and other mental health issues. According to Charlie, many combat Vets just can’t get traumatic thoughts out of their heads. They don’t have a positive focus and therefore dwell on past trauma. Charlie says that working with horses is wonderful therapy.

Rather than thinking about guns and grenades, he is thinking about positive things such as being out in nature with his horse. Working with horses motivates Charlie to go outside rather than remain secluded and depressed indoors. Exercising outdoors can expel aggression and anger.

Charlie commented that one doesn’t have to be riding to experience therapeutic value from a horse. He shared that he enjoys doing ground work with horses because he gets to see positive results and therefore receives gratification and a sense of accomplishment. Quoted from the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development (JRRD), “Performing ground work and or grooming a horse can establish communication, bonding and help build a relationship of trust”.

Serving as an Endurance Ride volunteer can also be therapeutic for someone with PTSD. Charlie and his wife, Amie served as volunteers at the Pacific Crest Endurance ride in Southern Oregon this past summer. Charlie worked as a pulse taker and also assisted the Ride veterinarian with other tasks. Charlie mentioned that it felt great to be using his medical skills to help others again.

The Endurance camp provided Charlie with a more controlled social environment than most other busy places. It impressed Charlie that people showed genuine concern for the welfare of their horses. Charlie stated that working with an Endurance family provided him with a feeling of safety and social value. Charlie feels that the sport of Endurance could be beneficial for veterans with PTSD.

Charlie strongly feels that veterans must like horses though in order for the situation to work out. For example, if the veteran does not like horses, he/she will transfer negativity to the horse which could cause them both to get hurt. If the veteran does like horses then the sport of Endurance could have great therapeutic value because like the military, Endurance riding also trains one to push their limits in a positive way.

Animals help break down barriers.They’re honest with no hidden agendas. They are straight forward with their emotions. Horses are usually easier for veterans to deal with initially than people are. This is due to the fact that human beings unlike horses have complex emotions, expectations and behaviors. Horses can help those with PTSD bridge the social gap by learning to trust their ability to deal with challenges.

Charlie feels that by working with horses, (especially down trodden rescue horses) that someone with PTSD can learn to trust and become a whole person again. Charlie no longer has his troops to take care of, but he now experiences meaning again by now having his own horses to care for. (He also has Amie, a very supportive wife, rabbits, chickens, a cat and of course Indi, his service dog).

As quoted by Charlie,” Horses help him have a happy place for his thoughts to go!” He sure makes that obvious when he works with our horses. Our horses all love Charlie. They nicker when they see Charlie and actually run up to the gate to get caught when they see him coming.

You may want to consider mentoring a veteran with PTSD someday. Why is a having a mentor for someone with PTSD helpful? As stated by Don Depuy, an experienced horse trainer, “A qualified mentor can serve as the go between. A mentor can help the individual with PTSD and the horse learn to speak the same language”.