How horses are helping heal PTSD, depression and more

I recently watched the classic movie The Horse Soldiers (1959) with John Wayne and William Holden, directed by John Ford. It tells the true story of Col. Benjamin Grierson who leads the U.S. 7th Cavalry on maneuvers deep behind Confederate lines in the South in support of the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi in summer 1863.

The movie covers a lot in 90 minutes. It has action, romance and history, and offers a profound meditation on the causes and consequences of war. It also shows the beneficial connections between horses and soldiers.

As I explained last week, the U.S. military continues to look for natural approaches to help soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). They have found that Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) — also known as Equine Therapy or Equestrian Therapy — shows a lot of promise for helping our modern soldiers. But the approach goes back a long time…

Ancient Greek literature mentions the use of horseback riding as a therapy. In 600 B.C., Orbasis documented his observations on the therapeutic benefit of horseback riding. In Scandinavia, during the post-WW II outbreak of polio in 1946, Equine Therapy was introduced into modern healthcare.

EAT focuses on improving physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning.

Today, doctors use it for people who suffer from symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, autism, Alzheimer’s, dementia, delays in mental development, Down’s syndrome and other genetic syndromes, depression, brain injuries, abuse issues, and mental illness.

There are many theories on why and how EAT works. But as I always say, the best therapy is one that works, regardless of the explanation behind it.

Horses help with living in the present

A horse lives in the present, on a moment-by-moment basis. And people intuitively feel the fluidity of their mindset, emotions and energy. Horses also have excellent long-term memory, which has been evaluated by researchers at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Tours, France.

Therapy horses are trained to exhibit calmness and positivity. So, in their presence, people feel at ease with everyday stressors.

For example, patients with PTSD feel more relaxed and at ease with life’s challenges when they work with horses. They primarily focus on the animal, the “living soul” in its natural environment. Therefore, they can distance themselves from thoughts of their problems.

Veterans who suffer from PTSD experience many forms of anxiety because of their traumatic memories, which they have yet to fully process in the conscious mind.

But EAT helps provide new, pleasant memories, which replace the existing, unpleasant ones (like a cognitive behavioral therapy).

Younger veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have recently become interested in going to horse farms for this therapy. These connections breed empathy, patience, and loving feelings, which veterans need to recover from post-traumatic stress.

At Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, veterans experience results with EAT in just 90 days.

One veteran developed PTSD following a deployment with the U.S. Army to Bosnia during Operation Joint Forge. Serbians attacked troops as retribution for President Clinton’s order to bomb Kosovo in 1999.

She eventually began EAT through a VA program in Maryland in 2014 and stated:

The trust that develops between a rider and their horse is one like no other. The average horse weighs between 900 and 1100 pounds, so it is no wonder why horses have been used throughout history as aids in manual labor. In modern times, cars and trucks with the most horsepower are the sought-after models. Horses are larger, stronger, and can kill you with one kick to the head. Despite its physical greatness and ability to overpower any human…horses submit to us. They allow us to train them, tell them what to do and to ride them. Equine therapy is so successful because, although the rider could easily be hurt or killed by the horse, the horse is gentle and does as you ask. A beautiful relationship occurs when you can let go and trust in something more powerful than yourself. Once an individual learns this type of trust, they can open themselves up to the possibility of dominating their other fears.

It seems EAT doesn’t feel like traditional therapy for soldiers. It just feels as if they’re connecting with an animal spirit. This experience helps them become completely involved in the present moment naturally, outside in Nature.

The success of EAT reminds me of a quote Ronald Reagan used to repeat: “The outside of a horse is the best thing for the inside of a man” — or woman.