Sunday, January 3, 2016

Our PTSD Program With The Local Veterans Hospital

Kay Kerr has been involved in art and recreational therapy for most of her adult life. She has been riding with me for many years and is employed at the Hampton Veterans Hospital.A few years ago she began to develop a program that allowed patients in the PTSD program to come out and work with our horses.

The program could not be more simple. We bring out  three horses and participants spend about 10 minutes simply brushing the horses and detangling their manes. After they have relaxed and become accustomed to the horses I take one of the horses into the round pen and do a round pen demonstration that focuses simply on moving  the horse in different directions.

Eventually the horse works its way in towards me and stays closely attached to me as I proceed around the ring. I explain to the participants that the horses are  prey animals and as such are constantly seeking security. I explained that, unlike predators, the desire for security greatly outweighs any desire for autonomy or excitement. I explained how the horses communicate with each other using the body language of prey animals. After pointing out that humans instinctively use the body language of predators I illustrate how much that body language disturbs horses.

I then  casually mention that people who have been severely traumatized are often deeply disturbed when confronted with the body language of predators. I further explain that those who have been severely traumatized often relax and respond much better to the body language of prey animals.

I do not have to dwell on this point. In fact, I find it much easier to explain the importance of prey animal body language to participants with PTSD than it is to explain that same body language to people who have been active with horses all of their lives but have not been exposed to natural horsemanship.

Participants are then given the opportunity to come into the ring, move the horse around the round pen, often changing directions, and then inviting the horse to come in and latch on to them because of the leadership that they have shown.

It is that simple.

The results are often dramatic. Of course, the horse serves as a wonderful diagnostic tool. The horse will not respond to a person who does not demonstrate leadership. The horse will not respond to a person who is overly aggressive. The horse does not respond well to anyone filled with anxiety.

I am not a psychologist. However, it is obvious to me that for any form of counseling treatment to be effective it is necessary for the patient to be able to trust someone, or something, in that patient's life. Many of the participants have lost trust in every human they know. With just a short amount of time in the round pen many of the same patients begin to develop a degree of trust with the horse. Even if they have never touched a horse before in their life.

Many of the participants have lost the ability to view themselves as leaders. When they see an 800 pound horse, especially one that was once a wild horse, not only following their direction, but developing trust and exhibiting affection towards them their self image is altered.

I do not believe that these programs are a miraculous cure-all. However, I am absolutely convinced that for many of the participants the program opens the door for them to more effectively participate in the other treatments and counseling programs that they are receiving.

Participants generally get out of the van during their first trip to the horse lot looking quite unsure of themselves. Some of those same people, within an hour, open up and tell me of extremely personal and painful experiences they have had. Many of them make it quite clear that they are fealing hope and peace when working with our horses to a degree that they have never felt before.

And it is all this simple. We do not charge the participants any fee for this program. We do not charge the veterans hospital any fee for this program. This program could be replicated all across the country.

This program should be replicated all across the country.

Those who have never seen the program in action might have a hard time understanding what is going on. This is not recreation. The participants do not simply come out to have fun and relax. Working with the horses can be a life altering experience for anyone. Working with the horses is highly likely to be a life altering experience for anyone who has suffered profound trauma.

It is exciting and inspiring to simply sit back and watch this program happen. But if in addition to that one could also hear the things that the participants whisper to me about the impact that they are seeing in themselves from spending such a short time with the horses, one would understand why we enjoy providing this program so much.

In a later post I'll go into detail about a great program that Ashley Edwards, of Road To Repair, has developed called "The Other Side" that involves a more intensive program of healing with horses that focuses on participants who have survived sexual assault.

Our program began as an effort to save endangered horses. That is still a focus of everything we do, but over the years we have learned that our horses can save endangered people.

That is the most rewarding part of what we do.

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