Columbia University Researchers Documented the Possibility that Therapy Sessions with Horses Can Treat Symptoms of PTSD
By Craig Winston
A somewhat daring experiment at the Bergen County Equestrian Center in Leonia, N.J. had mental health experts from nearby Columbia University Medical Center in New York City trying to standardize Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) using veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As many as 30 percent of all veterans are at risk of developing PTSD. If successful in reducing PTSD symptoms, however, this therapy might be particularly helpful to veterans for whom other treatment methods have proved ineffective or difficult. Once weekly over eight weeks, morning or afternoon, groups of three to four veterans with formal PTSD diagnoses trekked to the equestrian center to work with two to three horses for 90 minutes in the hope that the PTSD symptoms will subside. Prudence Fisher, an associate professor of clinical psychiatric social work and co-leader of the project along with Yuval Neria, professor of medical psychology, said they saw significant improvement in veterans they treated. The researchers are aware that equine therapy can be the only variable in the patients’ lives during treatment. If their treatment were to change—for example, with drugs or the type of psychotherapy used—the equine therapy results may be affected.
The veterans interact with the horses in numerous exercises, including grooming and walking with them—without a lead rope. “Horses are very attuned to people’s emotions,” said equine specialist Jody Jacob-McVey in an interview with the local ABC news affiliate. “They can read when we are suppressing emotion; they can read when you are starting to escalate your emotions a little bit, and they will respond, and they can respond in a big way, but they measure it. So you can see a little response where the horse just looks at you, and you could see a bigger response where the horse might actually move their big body. And they are 1,000 pounds give or take. It’s sort of like a big-screen TV when they do something. It gives our veterans an opportunity to sort of see what their responses are to how the human is behaving.”
Although grooming the horses is viewed as a baseline for starting to build veterans’ relationships with the animals, there is no guarantee that the horses, which seemingly can read energy and moods, will like it. Said Jacob-McVey: “If one of our vets has run in from the office and is really agitated or anxious because he has been late, the horse will respond—you’ll see that elevation in their own emotion and agitation a little because they are mirroring the behavior of the human.”
Earle Mack, a veteran himself, fostered the study. Mack, who is passionate about horse rescue and racing, approached the school and asked if there was a way to look at equine therapy and see if it works. The study’s researchers visited some programs, read the literature—there is little hard data on the subject—including a critical article that appeared a few years ago that stated equine therapy simply doesn’t work. There were many parameters set for the program. First, the veterans do not ride the horses due to concerns about safety and the high cost of insurance. “There is a different relationship with a horse—the rider is the boss,” said Fisher. “We use a team approach where you have a licensed mental health professional and an equine therapist. There is a third person, who we call a wrangler (also called equine professionals), for people not used to horses.”
All sessions were videotaped and reviewed by research and clinical teams. Therapist Clare Dorotik-Nana traces the therapeutic beginning of equine therapy to as early as 1969 when the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association recognized the benefits of equine-assisted activities for those with special needs. The organization—now international—has more than 4,800 certified instructors and 7,500 members.
In the Columbia pilot program, there were eight veterans, and an equine manual was created. It is fine-tuned as the ongoing clinical trials advanced with a total of 50-60 veterans having taken part. The program resembled most outpatient psychotherapy programs: the veterans come once a week while still living their normal lives. There is absolute clarity in what is being treated, however. There is a phone screen and to be accepted patients must have a full-blown PTSD diagnosis at a moderate level. If you are using drugs daily or are severely suicidal—just not stable psychologically, they’ll need a higher level of care.
The rewards of therapy are not the only positives. They’re given boots and are paid $100 for each of four assessments done—one before the therapy begins, one halfway through, one at the end, and there is a follow-up three months later. Although the partnership between the veterans and horse are succeeding, one may ask, why horses? Wouldn’t another animal be equally good in therapy? “We have had a bond with horses for millennia,” said Anna Gassib, executive director of the equestrian center. “We have ridden them into battle, they have plowed our fields, they’ve given us transportation. They have been our partners for this whole journey. Equus has always been there with us.”