Training

Horses as Healers

When Don Wood returned home to Clearwater, Nova Scotia from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007, he was haunted by memories of what he’d witnessed.

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By: Liz Brown |

When Don Wood returned home to Clearwater, Nova Scotia from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007, he was haunted by memories of what he’d witnessed.

As an electronics and communications technician with the air force unit in the Canadian Armed Forces, he worked in dangerous areas like Kabul and Bagram. “I wasn’t in a combat role, but there are lots of things that go on over there. You see explosions. You see the poverty,” he said.

The thing that sits with Wood most, though, was seeing his brothers and sisters in arms go home in caskets. “It was rough there in 2007. We put 13 people on a plane. I was a pallbearer, so I personally put them on a plane to come home,” he said.

“When he came back he was very different,” said Wood’s wife, Lisa Conrod. At the time, they were dating and had just moved in together. “Things I really didn’t see in him before cropped up. He was very possessive and suspicious. He would get angry very easily, he would get very emotional and depressed.”

For 18 months, Wood coped in silence, until a blow to the head during a training exercise at a military base in Nova Scotia forced him to seek medical attention. “That accident is what started me into investigating what was going on,” he said.

By that time, Wood said he had distanced himself from everyone in his life except for his wife. “I was a very isolated person. You don’t even know you’re doing it.”

Wood’s doctors referred him to the ‘fifth floor’ of the military treatment centre in Halifax. “It’s excellent treatment, but if you’re from Halifax and you’re in the military, you know that the fifth floor is somewhere you don’t want anyone to know you’re going because that’s the mental health floor and there’s a real fear it’s going to affect your career,” said Conrod.

Wood thrived in treatment with a psychiatrist and therapist and Conrod sought help in a peer support group for spouses. “Don’s a success story,” said Conrod proudly. “He’s still serving and he just got promoted.”

But the legacy of their early struggles continued to influence their interactions together and with their children. “People with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] may seem angry and short tempered, but they’re not aware of that vibe they’re giving off. So, people in the family will just be like, ‘He’s home, I’m out of here. I’m going to my room to get away from this,’” said Conrod.

Wood added that as his mental health began to improve, his wife began to struggle. “What happens with most of us – and what happened with me – was that as you progress with your treatment and get healthy, your spouse, who has been holding everything together for so long, they begin to crumble.”

Four years later, in 2012, things were much better for Wood and Conrod, but they felt there was still room for improvement. Enter a herd of Haflingers and a couple of ambitious guys looking to help veterans coping with the trauma of combat.

Through a co-worker who also attended a support group, Conrod heard about a program where spouses and veterans suffering from the effects of PTSD could work with horses. The program promised to help the couples improve their communication skills and coping mechanisms through a three-day workshop.

“Don was really resistant to it at first,” said Conrod. “He talked to his psychiatrist about it and his psychiatrist said there’s no proof that animal therapy works and Don felt like that too.”

But at Conrod’s insistence, Wood called Steve Critchley, a Canadian Forces veteran and conflict manager and one of the co-founders of the program, called Can Praxis. Critchley convinced Wood and Conrod to travel out to Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to participate in the three-day workshop, which was offered free-of-cost to veterans.

Now in its second year, Can Praxis aims to teach veterans and their family members how to use effective communication techniques with the assistance of horses. Critchley and Jim Marland, a psychologist and certified equine-assisted learning facilitator, developed the program in 2011. Over three days, Critchley holds classroom workshops to teach communication skills that will reduce conflict. Then Marland works with the veterans and their partners as they complete a series of exercises with the horses, like leading them through obstacle courses.

Why horses?

There are a myriad of tools to treat emotional and psychological issues – medication and psychotherapy are the traditional routes. Animal therapy, however, including work with horses, is becoming more accepted as a complementary and viable treatment option.

In his book, Zen Mind Zen Horse, Harvard-trained brain surgeon and horse trainer Dr. Allan Hamilton writes: “Horses live only in the moment. There are no expectations for the future or disappointments from the past to cloud their relationships with us. … Horses thus offer us a unique opportunity to see ourselves in ‘divine mirrors,’ reflecting back the chi we give off in our own emotions, to show ourselves in the moment. Horses react to what lies in our hearts, not our heads. They are not confused by the words we use to lie to ourselves or hide from others.”

Those who use equines in their therapy practice assert that because horses are prey animals, they are hyper aware of our body language and emotional state, which makes them a living, breathing, emotional divining rod. “When a horse senses tension or frustration in people, they will react because they’re looking at our body language all the time,” said Marland.

When he asks a couple to solve a problem in an obstacle course, the horse will cease cooperating if the partners stop cooperating. “If the stress and frustration goes up, and their communication goes down, the horse sees this instantly and he might just stop,” said Marland. “This allows me to join the conversation and ask what’s wrong. It’s an invitation for them to examine themselves and say, ‘Where’s our stress, where’s our tension, what’s happening?’ It’s easier to take that observation from the horse’s mouth rather than from me in therapy,” he explained.

“For a couple that’s not receiving any help, this would be helpful to them because it reminds them how to communicate. For those already getting help, it helps them communicate with their psychologists,” Marland added.

The results Marland and Critchley have achieved from the program are remarkable. Wood and Conrod both insist their three days in Alberta prompted a massive shift in their interactions. “Even after my treatment I had a bad habit of shutting down conversations,” said Wood. “It had been the biggest thing in our relationship I couldn’t overcome. Can Praxis opened the door to what I was doing to her and showed me how important it was that we keep communicating and that we both understand each other.”

Marland doesn’t limit his equine assisted learning practice to veterans. He also does work with corporate clients and youth. “There’s a lot of similarities in the groups and what you’re trying to achieve,” he said.

Beyond Can Praxis, there are a number of programs and independent therapists who use horses in their practice. Recently, Can Praxis teamed up with Horses Help Canada to bring their workshops for veterans to Ontario.

Horses Help Canada is the brainchild of Jane Saundercook, who witnessed firsthand the healing power of horses with a family member who has Asperger’s syndrome. “I watched how a member of my family went from angry, frustrated, lost and anxious to calm, confident and happy,” Saundercook said of their first experience with horses, during a speech at the organization’s fundraiser gala in February at Woodbine Racetrack.

Horses Help Canada hosts the H.E.A.L. (Human Equine Assisted Learning) program for youth, which teaches trust, boundaries and communication skills, based at Maple Crescent Farm in Campbellcroft, Ontario.

Jennifer Schramm, a registered counselor and FEEL facilitator (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning), said that equine assisted therapy can be helpful to anyone who is experiencing blocks in their life. This can take the form of relationship problems, work problems, eating disorders and self-esteem or confidence issues, among other things.

A talk-therapy counselor first, Schramm said that when a client gets ‘stuck’ she’ll recommend “taking it to the horses.”

“When you do talk therapy you’re in an office and you’re talking about things and it’s more of a cognitive approach,” she said. “But when you’re with the horses, you feel things in your body. When those feelings start to come up, you are faced with it head on and it’s a wonderful way to process what’s going on.”

Both Schramm and Marland agree that it’s difficult to articulate what exactly goes on in the presence of horses. “It’s almost magic,” said Schramm.

Backed by science?

Unfortunately, the psychology community can’t be sold on unarticulated feelings and magic, and there’s still some skepticism surrounding the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy. The people who practice therapy with horses are working hard, however, to gain credibility in the psychology community.

Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy is that organizations have been willing to put their money on the line in support of these programs. Veterans Affairs Canada pledged $25,000 to the Can Praxis program last year and, this year, Wounded Warriors, a non-profit veterans’ services organization, gave Can Praxis $150,000 to continue its work.

There are a handful of studies from the past several years that have found participants in these programs experience significant improvements following equine assisted therapy. The paper Equine-assisted psychotherapy: a mental health promotion/intervention modality for children who have experienced intra-family violence (published in Health and Social Care in the Community in 2007) found that equine-assisted therapy was particularly effective in children with mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, substance abuse and disruptive disorders.

This study followed 63 children for 18 months who received an average of 19 equine assisted psychotherapy sessions. Using a common psychological measuring system called the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF), psychologists determined scores for the children pre- and post-equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions. All of the participants showed improvement following the sessions, however, the greatest improvement was seen in the youngest children and in children who had a history of physical abuse and neglect.

Right now, Dr. Randy Duncan, a researcher from the University of Saskatchewan, is leading a study into the effectiveness of animal-assisted interventions, using the Can Praxis program. Details of his investigation will be published in the Canadian Military Journal later this year, and his work was mentioned in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in September 2013.

Each month, Marland sends completed participant questionnaires to Dr. Duncan for evaluation. “He’s specialized his professional career in developing research instruments for measuring things that are hard to measure,” said Marland.

“When we went to various places to sell this idea to people, the people who understood horses, their eyes would light up and say, ‘That’s a great idea.’ But people who don’t understand horses, their eyes would glaze over and they would say, ‘Horses don’t help people, prove it,’” said Marland. “So, we’re taking the anecdotal stories and backing it up with empirical evidence.”

 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A THERAPIST

The equine assisted learning field is still a fledgling treatment modality and, as such, more and more people are trying to cash in on the field through the creation of certification programs and different services. “There isn’t a lot of regulation out there,” admitted Jennifer Schramm, a registered counselor and FEEL facilitator.

So, what’s a person to look for in a quality equine assisted therapy program?

1. Formal qualifications – A person offering equine assisted therapy sessions should have some sort of formal qualification. “It shows there’s some academic study behind the work they’re doing,” said Jim Marland of Can Praxis. Some of the main equine assisted therapy programs include Eponaquest Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy; FEEL (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning); EAGALA, which is a growing worldwide training and certification program that encompasses two certifications – Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL); and the National Association for Equine-Facilitated Wellness.

2. Horse experience – “It should be a safe environment,” said Schramm, noting the therapist should have basic horsemanship skills. Sometimes, however, a therapist and a horse person will team up to offer the services. “You just want to make sure you’re supported on both sides (through psychotherapy and horsemanship),” she said.

3. Rapport – You’ll be digging into sticky emotional territory, so you want a person who makes you feel at ease. “Someone might have lots and lots of qualifications, but if you can’t get on with them because they’re not very personable, that’s the wrong choice for you,” said Marland. “Like most things in life, trust your gut,” added Schramm. “If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not a good fit.”

You can’t fool horses – they can read your feelings and mirror them back to you. Here, we can see that therapist Jennifer Schramm is at ease in the round pen as reflected in her equine partner.

 

A SKEPTIC TRANSFORMED

I’m a skeptic by nature. It’s why I became a journalist. So, when my editor asked me to write a story on the psychological healing power of horses, I rolled my eyes. Sure it feels good to be around horses – my barn time is a leisure pursuit, after all – but horse-as-teacher-who’s-going-to-help-me-unload-emotional-baggage? Come on!

Then I had a bunch of gruff army guys tell me it helped them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and my skepticism cracked. I had to try this for myself.

So, on an early Sunday morning I arrived at Horse Spirit Connections in Tottenham, Ontario, to meet with Jennifer Schramm, a life coach, registered counselor and FEEL (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning) facilitator. Schramm is warm and treats you like a friend from the get-go. She welcomed me into a small meeting room inside the barn and asked me what difficulties I’d like to explore in our session.

I told her about my divorce four years ago and my difficulty in allowing myself to be vulnerable with love again. It’s not a particularly easy thing for me to talk about because it was one of the most painful periods of my life and probably the topic around which I carry the most emotional garbage. So, this is where we started.

We entered the barn and she asked me to take a walk through the aisles and choose two or three horses out of the herd of 11. Without touching any of them, I was supposed to open myself to their energy and notice how each horse made me feel. I was given 10 minutes to complete the exercise.

The horse I was most drawn to was a grey Paso Fino named Contendor, who pinned his ears and shook his head as I walked by. His grouchiness at my presence fed my own angry energy and I felt in him a kindred spirit. Lately, I’d been feeling disgruntled with life – I hadn’t taken a vacation in almost a year, my stress levels at work were high and my personal life was non-existent.

After a walk through the rest of the barn, I knew Contendor was the horse I wanted to work with. Schramm asked me about the other horses in the barn, but I was adamant the prickly Paso Fino was the therapist for me.

So, she led him into the arena and turned him out in the round pen and asked me to enter with him. Contendor snorted and spooked. Any sudden movement or sound made him start. Schramm asked me to approach him at the shoulder. I crept towards him. Any time I got within three feet of him and reached out to touch him, however, he’d pin his ears, flare his nostrils and shake his head.

“He’s showing you his boundaries,” said Schramm.

I told Schramm his flightiness and aggression put me on edge and she asked me if I wanted her to come in and be with me, or if I wanted to leave the round pen. I told her I would stay, and once I felt comfortable, she asked me to close my eyes and open my heart to him. This seemed a little hokey to me, but I did it anyways, practicing the deep breathing and mind-clearing exercises I’d learned in yoga.

With my eyes still closed, I could feel Contendor move closer to me and begin pacing back and forth in front of me. I opened my eyes again and approached him. He dropped his head and started chewing. But still, if I reached out to touch him, he would flatten his ears.

“Does this remind you of anything?” Schramm asked me.

My chest felt tight, my eyes started watering and I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Contendor did remind me of something – me. He was sensitive and flighty and unwilling to let people in his space. This was a metaphor for my own behaviour in relationships over the past four years. It seemed more than coincidental now that I’d been drawn to this horse. Instantly, I understood what all the horse therapy people were talking about when they say horses are like a mirror and bring up all your crap.

When we returned to the barn, Schramm and I sat down for a debriefing. We sat and chatted about my experience with Contendor. I was only in the round pen for 10 minutes with him, but that brief period was a catalyst to talk about a host of uncomfortable feelings I’d pushed down. I’ve done talk therapy with counselors before, but working with a horse seemed to fast track the process and facilitate an open discussion about how my behaviour contributes to some of my personal problems.

I left with a better understanding of myself and while I’m certainly not cured of my trust issues, Schramm and Contendor were able to convince this skeptic that horses can be helpful in dealing with some of life’s emotional curveballs.