For thousands of years horses have been mystical, magical creatures playing the role of transportation, gladiator, companion, entertainer and more. Now they are also playing the role of psychotherapy assistant through a discipline known as Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) which is increasingly being used to treat war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs estimates that Post Traumatic Stress afflicts as many as one-quarter of the troops returning from the Middle East, or about 300,000 men and women. The growing field of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is showing great promise in treating veterans and their families who suffer from the nightmares, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability and other debilitating effects of this invisible, yet very real disability.
Preliminary Studies Validate EAP for PTSD Equine Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD has gathered the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Preliminary results are favorable, suggesting statistically significant rates of change. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) also evaluated treatment of members of the Georgia National Guard where deployments averaged two years or more. The study revealed that 100 percent of soldiers who completed therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels. Animal-assisted therapy has shown evidenced-based efficacy in patients including war veterans with PTSD, depression, anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders, dissociative disorders, and other chronic mental illnesses.
According to Dr. Laurie Sullivan-Sakeada, a Utah based Clinical Psychologist and leading practitioner of EAP, horses are prey animals, and, like those who have been to war, rely on their heightened senses for survival. They react to and mirror the emotions of visitors directly, without words. Horses respond negatively to negative emotions. They respond positively to positive emotions, and they have no ulterior motives.
“They are just there,” says Sakeada, “providing non-verbal feedback.” The horses are therapeutic and interactive tools that speed up the therapy process substantially. Dr. Sakeada notes that one session of EAP in the barn is equal to five sessions “on the couch.”
Particularly for those whose mental illness involves the experience of lost control over impulses, the need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces patient agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.
Many persons with mental illness have been emotionally inhibited or over-controlled, and have lost some measure of spontaneity. The playful aspects of riding and team equine activities can help restore spontaneity and ability for healthy recreation and play.
So Why Horses?
Horses also possess a variety of “herd dynamics” such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another and grazing together. In the process of describing the interactions between horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.