How horses are being used to help veterans deal with PTSD

WATCH: (Jul. 18, 2014) Equine therapy pairs veterans and their spouses with horses and under the supervision of a psychologist they work through a series of exercises to improve communication and collaboration.

It is a world away from the dust, danger and stress of Afghanistan and other war zones.

On a quiet ranch near Rice Lake, four veterans enter a corral with their spouses by their sides. Each couple approaches a horse and tentatively starts to groom.

Conversations are subdued, calm, focused on the task at hand.

Psychologist Jim Marland observes carefully, looking for insight through the human interaction with each other and the animals.

It is a new angle on helping veterans deal with post traumatic stress disorder.

“It is not about hug a horse,” said Jim Critchley, a 28 year veteran of the forces and trained mediator.

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Collaborating with Marland, he developed Can Praxis, a program of equine assisted therapy.

READ MORE: 13 first responders, 13 suicides, 10 weeks 

The veterans and their spouses do not ride the horses, at least not in the initial phase.  Rather they lead them through a series of collaborative exercises.  The horses sense emotions in the humans and react accordingly—giving hints about what is going on in the minds of the participants.

“If they’re being very aggressive, the horse wants to leave.  If they’re extremely passive, the horse will walk all over them,” said Critchley.

“If they’re asserting themselves in just the right, relaxed manner the horse is relaxed and they’re able to work with it effectively.”

The program has been running for a year and a half in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. The first session in Ontario was July 18 and organizers hope to set up centres in different locations across the country to minimize travel costs.

The charity Wounded Warriors funded the program, so none of the veterans have to pay.

Todd and Laurie Burns made the journey from their Halifax home to try the equine therapy.   Together for more than 30 years, things changed in their relationship when he came home from his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007, suffering from post traumatic stress.

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“I have a tendency to withdraw on a bad day. I don’t let Laurie in,” he said.

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

He was skeptical when a therapist first told him of the idea but after learning more about it decided to try the therapy.  They were paired with a gentle old horse named Badger.  In one exercise, Laurie was blindfolded and held onto Badger’s bridle while Todd led them both through an obstacle course of logs laid out in the corral. It touched on a key area for him.

“One of the themes of the program is to learn to communicate effectively and to work together,” he said.

It was a trust exercise, where Laurie had to count on Todd’s advice on where to step.

“I trust you,” she said.

“That’s a good thing,” he responded as they both laughed.

“I don’t think I’ve lost the trust,” she added.  “It’s just good to have the direction.”

Marland likes to call the program therapeutic rather than therapy.

“We give them practical tools to have a conversation that reduces conflict. And they practise those skills with me and the horses and the horses give instant feedback,” he said.

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PTSD is an affliction that never really goes away.  The hope is that the participants can go home with new understanding and new means of coping with what the veterans brought home from the war.

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