Thursday, April 28, 2016
Our Equine PTSD Program Is Going Across The River
For a few years now we have had patients at the local Veteran's Hospital come out for what for some of them have been life changing experiences. Tomorrow we will take a round pen and a horse over to the Hampton Veteran's hospital for a demonstration of this deceptively simple program that could be extended in PTSD treatment programs across the nation.
Kay Kerr, recreational therapist at that hospital, developed this program. Participants first spend about 10-15 minutes brushing the horses and then we put one of the horses in the round pen. We explain the difference between prey animal body language and predator body language. We show how to gain the horse's trust by providing him with the security that he needs to relax. Security is created by showing the horse affection and leadership. For the horse, leadership is a simple concept. When one horse is having its speed and direction of movement controlled by another horse that other horse is the leader. Horses have evolved to need not only a herd, but also a leader of that herd, to be at peace.
After teaching how to use body language and actions that the horse can understand to produce the movement needed to demonstrate leadership, the participant dons a helmet and steps into the round pen. Participants learn that those who have suffered severe trauma often respond positively to the body language of prey animals and are repulsed by normal, human body language. Human body language is that of a predator. That is why no one ever had to teach you to understand what was going on in a dog's mind. We instinctively share common cues, signals, and techniques.The body language of a high school cheer leader and an excited Jack Russel terrier is identical.
That is not a coincidence.
After demonstrating how to use body language and actions that the horse can understand to produce the movement needed to demonstrate leadership, the participant dons a helmet and steps into the round pen, moves the horse--and generally ends up with the horse attached to them as if being on a lead rope. The horse follows the participant around the ring and seeks affection from their new found leader
And sometimes what happens seems like magic.
We know from direct reports from the participants that often radical changes in thinking can occur after just one session. I watch weekly and still am amazed at what I see. I wrack my brain trying to understand what is going on.
The key seems to be trust. Those who have been severely traumatized finding trusting anyone difficult, if not impossible. There can be no recovery without trust. The euphoria that comes from causing a horse to have trust might be the key. Learning that one has the power to trust and create trust opens the door to recovery.
I am not suggesting that this is, in and of itself, a permanent fix. Without a doubt, if a participant goes on to develop trust in a human and that trust is completely violated, the participant immediately falls back onto a road to despair. When that happens the participant needs to get right back out there with the horses and work the horses intensely, until the ability to trust is regained.
The most insidious aspect of PTSD is that it often causes one to resist opportunities to heal. They forget the pleasure that earning the trust of a horse gave them and might even see the violation of their trust by a person to be proof that the horses can't help heal. They can fall into patterns of isolation and avoidance behavior that makes their symptoms much worse. They fall onto the road to despair.
As programs like ours spread I think that a mechanism to allow former participants to get back into the round pen as soon as their trust is betrayed will be needed. Participant's need to know that the door is always open to come back to the horse lot.
I am looking forward to tomorrow's program.
Posted by Steve Edwards