On a quiet ranch in Pembroke, only a 20-minute drive from Petawawa, Canada’s biggest military base, a small group of soldiers and veterans meet once a week for therapy sessions with horses.
The War Horse Project is a relatively new program being offered to soldiers in the area who served in Afghanistan and after returning to Canada developed an operational stress injury, such as being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, alcohol abuse, and anxiety issues.
One of the participants is 49-year-old Roger Boudreau, who has served in the military for 19 years and was diagnosed with PTSD, among other psychological issues, after returning from a tour in Afghanistan in 2006.
“I fell through the cracks when I first came back. It took about a year to get into mental health,” Boudreau said.
He had uncontrollable bouts of rage, he began drinking, he was suicidal, and then his wife left him.
He tried going to clinical therapy offered by the military, but he never had a consistent therapist. Boudreau went from one therapist to another, repeating his story each time to a new person, and feeling like he wasn’t getting anything out of the experience.
Then last year he heard about the War Horse Project. After completing an eight-week pilot program, he returned this spring to do the full 16-week program.
“It definitely helps, I’m a lot more relaxed afterwards. I’m sleeping better. It actually takes a lot to make me mad. It has a very calming effect,” he said.
The War Horse Project was founded by Alison Vandergragt, the program director of Hope Reins Assisted Therapy Programs. She had been running a program for children from military families when she noticed that it was the parents who were dealing with mental health issues, which was affecting the children.
“We need to look at the parents to help the kids,” Vandergragt said.
The War Horse Project began last summer, and since then she’s had 20 participants in two programs, and over 800 volunteer hours. Each program costs $16,000 for 10 participants, and so far Vandergragt has been getting donations and grants, but the non-profit organization is still underfunded.
On April 21, in the 2015 federal budget, the government acknowledged that due to an increasing number of veterans coming forward with complex disabilities that demand a higher level of care, Veterans Affairs will receive $193.4-million over five years to improve their services. Vandergragt doesn’t know if that funding will include the War Horse Project, but she’s hopeful that by continuing the project, and collecting research on how the participants benefit from the therapy, the government will recognize the importance in supporting a program like this.
Once a week, when Boudreau goes in for the three-hour therapy session in the afternoon, his horse, Doc, comes to greet him at the fence. Doc is a powerful-looking white horse, with one blue eye and one brown eye. Boudreau said that he noticed Doc was the biggest and the most stubborn horse, and he found that he’s connected with him because of it.
“Now I’m getting a dose of what I put other people through with this horse,” he said. The facilitators at the program say that it’s common for a participant to bond with a particular horse as a way to deal with emotional issues.
Wendy Lange-Faria is the psychologist at the War Horse Project, who specializes in equine therapy, and helps design some of the activities with the horses. She said that one of the reasons the program works is how the horses respond to the emotions the participants bring to the ranch.
“In order to work with the horses you have to calm down your inner chaos because horses will pick up on what you’re experiencing,” Lange-Faria said.
She remembers in one session when seven of the horses started running around the arena, kicking and bucking. A few people in the group said they’d had a really tough week and were feeling stressed and anxious. A couple of the veterans pointed out that the horses were responding to what was going on inside them.
Riding the horse is another component of the program that requires the participant to find a sense of inner peace. Boudreau said he has been able to deal with unresolved issues since going to the ranch. In October, he rode Dakota, a dark horse he bonded with in the fall program.
There are other equine therapy facilities across the country that offer programs for veterans. In 2013, the government gave $25,000 to Can Praxis, in Alberta, to support a two-year pilot project to study animal therapy for veterans. It’s a three-day program that helps veterans reconnect with family members. Veterans Affairs stated in an email that it “will be making future plans using the data from the pilot project.”
The War Horse Project model involves activities with the horses, a guided mindfulness practice, and social interactions among the participants who share what they’re feeling and how they’re coping with their “soldier’s heart” – the term used for PTSD at the ranch.
Social support is a major factor in the recovery process, said Stéphane Grenier, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, who spent much of his career dedicated to addressing mental health issues in the workplace. After Grenier returned from Rwanda in 1995, he spent seven years feeling “messed up,” which motivated him to help other soldiers with an operational stress injury find the path to recovery.
“People are left taking pills, seeing their therapist once a month, and then they go into isolation,” Grenier said. With equine therapy, he sees the benefit is that it “gathers people together and people build a common bond, a common sense of purpose, they’re together, conversations ensue, and that is social support.”
Boudreau says he likes the social part of the War Horse Project. He learns from the other participants about other coping mechanisms. Still, the part of the session he looks forward to the most is grooming his four-legged buddy, Doc.
Both Lange-Faria and Vandergragt say that the War Horse Project is something close to their hearts, and even if they don’t get government funding, they’ll find other ways to continue running the much-needed program for veterans.