Horses Healing the Unseen Wounds of War
Our military servicemen and women work long hours and spend extended periods of time away from their families in order to protect our country and others who are less fortunate around the world. The sacrifices they make while fighting for our freedom allow us to enjoy the way of life to which we’ve grown accustom.
In addition to the dangers faced during combat, military service members are at risk for mental health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse.
According to a study by RAND Corporation, 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depression, and 50 percent do not seek treatment. Recent statistical studies also show the rate of veteran suicide is 5,000-8,000 a year (22 a day).
The use of therapeutic riding to help military personnel recovering from a range of physical and mental health issues is growing quickly, especially as the body of evidence supporting its effectiveness grows.
In 2016 to date, Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program (NVTRP) has served over 70 military servicemen and women as part of its military personnel program.
All of the military riders participate in small group lessons that focus on both riding skills and horsemanship activities, such as grooming and training the equines. Under the supervision of a PATH-certified instructor and supported as needed by up to three volunteers per rider, recovering military riders are encouraged to go outside their comfort zones.
“A lot of our patients are working on learning to trust other people and how to build emotional connections, and working with the horses is a perfect modality for that. It’s a big deal for our patients to learn to let their guard down and be real, and the horses provide the perfect opportunity to practice those skills. I think any animal-based therapies are great for our population,” said Sarah Howard, a recreational therapist at Ft. Belvoir Community Hospital who has referred recovering military riders to NVTRP.
Like humans, horses are highly intuitive, social animals. They readily pick up on rider’s body language and mood. Unlike humans, however, horses are non-judgmental and don’t “fake it.” These traits make horses powerful therapists. They give immediate, honest feedback in a non-threatening environment, helping riders address a range of issues. Time and time again at NVTRP, riders who have not responded to traditional, clinical-based therapies blossom as they work with their trusted equine partners.
100% of the 52 NVTRP military riders surveyed said “yes” the riding session benefited their mental health. One shared that “It helped me see that there is more to life than drinking and depression.” Another commented that “It was nice to get a distraction from treatment to come here. It made me feel good.”
Asked about the best part of their time at NVTRP, riders mentioned: “The calming effect it had on me.” “It was awesome. I was able to get out of myself which was good for my diagnosis.” “If you’re afraid or have fear in your life, bonding with the horse helps overcome that fear.” “The best coping I have had for PTSD.” And, last, but certainly not least, “Very relaxing, takes you to a happy place.”
“Many times I have seen our service members who are very isolative and have very little interactions with others turn into a completely different person by the end of our sessions by opening up to the volunteers and bonding over the horse and their experience with various animals,” said Howard.
“I see a major difference in our service members the more times they get to participate in the program. Even if it is just one chance to participate, it’s something they will take with them to help continue to improve.”
Recovering military personnel pay no fees to participate in NVTRP’s programs. NVTRP raises the full cost of their participation from private fundraising. As the program has grown, so too has the amount of money needed to be raised in order to sustain it.
For questions or to learn more about supporting our nation’s recovering military personnel, please contact NVTRP’s Development Director Wendy Baird via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at (703) 764-0269.