7 Ways Equine Therapy is Helping Veterans
Most of us have had dreams of being a cowboy or cowgirl, riding through the Wild West on our very own horse that is smart, fast, and loyal. Many of the old Westerns taught us that a horse could be a cowboy’s best friend, and that their relationship was a partnership built on mutual trust.
The truth of these fictional movies – that horses are noble, helpful, and good for the spirit – is the basis for the increasingly popular equine therapy for veterans recovering from injuries, both physical and mental. Veterans and their families often can ride and train for free through a wide range of equine therapy programs across the country.
What makes these programs so successful in helping wounded warriors? Below are seven reasons why horseback riding is helpful to veterans.
You’re in the moment. When you are up in the saddle, the world beyond seems to melt away. You must focus your energy and be intentional with your commands and body language. Experts say that horses can sense the emotional state of the rider; they know if you are feeling confident and will only take you seriously when you’re sure of yourself. It’s an incentive to reconnect to your own sense of self-confidence in giving orders and leading. When you do, the horse will follow.
It is peaceful. Whether you are on a trail ride or simply trotting around an arena, the sounds of horseback riding are often quiet and rhythmic. Hooves pound the ground, the horse breathes or whinnys, you feel your own body working with the movement of the horse. Many veterans struggling with PTSD experience anxiety from loud, sudden noises. Others simply need an escape from daily living in the city, or the hustle and bustle of a military base. An occasional whinny or the wind rushing by as you trot help clear the mind and give a sense of peace.
It’s something new and different. Many veterans have never been on horseback. They might be experts in their military specialty or have previously lead complicated operations, but the chance to learn something new and instantly rewarding can break through the doldrums of daily life. With the right instructor and an open mind, a new rider can quickly pick up the techniques and skills to become a successful horseman. There is no pressure or expectations from the animal; they simply wait for your command and when given correctly, they respond as you ask. These small successes can go a long way in rebuilding confidence and finding moments of happiness.
It’s physical. From saddling the horse, to mounting, to riding, and later grooming, the actions required in horseback riding encompass the entire body. Although it looks simple enough, riding for an extended period of time is deceptively physical; you’ll feel it in your leg muscles and back the next day. This physical exertion, concentration, and connection with the animal can offer a veteran a mental break from repetitive thoughts, anxiety, and hyper-awareness that often accompany PTSD. Plus fresh air is always beneficial to mind and body.
It’s a new partner. Anyone who’s been in the military for an extended period of time understands how important a partner – or “buddy” – is, both in training and on the front lines. Knowing there is someone looking out for you and working towards the same goal is a highly valued commodity in military life, and when veterans return from service, they may find that aspect lacking in civilian life. Working with a horse, over several weeks as in equine therapy, offers a new partner relationship with another living creature. You work together to accomplish goals, build trust, and look after one another.
It gives you new memories. As veterans work to reintegrate into civilian life, they may be struggling with intense and vivid memories from the arena of combat. Experts believe that one way to help alleviate these anxiety-inducing memories is to replace them with new, happier experiences and memories. Giving a veteran a new mental “place to go” in moments of stress – for example, picturing their last ride through a peaceful field – can be a coping mechanism to get them through a triggered emotion.
It’s just fun. That moment when you break into your first gallop, push your horse to run even faster, or perhaps even jump over an obstacle, you can’t help but smile. Equine therapy has to be one of the most enjoyable types of therapy a person can participate in, and the escape from daily life on the back of a good horse can go a long way in helping heal a war-weary mind and body, and can give a veteran hope that they will again feel the joy and happiness they hoped to return to after battle.
Written by Megan Hammons