A study named for Man o’ War is now well under way that aims to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by providing them with equine-assisted therapy, and in the process gives retired horses a valuable new purpose as well. The study is being funded by The Man O’ War Project, a non-profit set up by army veteran and lifelong horseman, Ambassador Earle Mack, who had a hunch that stressed soldiers and horses would be a good match. Mack approached Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry with the idea. Columbia agreed to undertake a research trial that would put approximately 60 PTSD-suffering veterans through an equine therapy program.
James MacGuire, the Man o’ War Project’s chairman says, “If this Phase One trial is successful, we plan to take the program to a national level,” eventually seeking grants and funding through the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Veterans Administration.
Anne Poulson, the Man o’ War Project’s board president added, “It is a crisis in our country when 20 veterans commit suicide a day. We have to broaden the ways to treat our veterans.”
“Horses, by nature, are prey animals, and so they’re hyper-vigilant and reactive to people’s behavior,” said Prudence Fisher, a professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia, who has been co-directing the study for the past year.
In the study, three or four veterans at a time spend 90 minutes with two horses and two staff members once a week for eight weeks, slowly learning to interact with and become comfortable with the animals and learning about themselves through them.
“The veterans feel that the horses are mirroring what they feel,” said Yuval Neria, a medical psychology professor at Columbia and the study’s other director. “They are both fearful, initially, they are both apprehensive, initially, they avoid being together, and over time they develop the ability to be together.”
The idea is to address PTSD, a signature disorder among veterans which has a host of emotional symptoms, from angry outbursts and difficulty sleeping, to trouble concentrating or avoidance of trauma-related triggers. Pharmacological and traditional talk therapy are not always effective.
“There’s a lot about trust, about being clear with your intentions,” Fisher said. Describing one veteran who was terrified of horses in the first session, she said, “by the 3rd session the horse is putting his head on him and he’s leaning on the horse.” Another veteran, for example, was afraid to take the subway before the sessions. Now that fear has lifted.
Participants so far have ranged in age from 30 to 68. “We have Vietnam vets, they’ve had chronic PTSD for years, and never got treatment,” Fisher said.
In fact, the horses themselves may also benefit from the program. The ones selected tend to be mellow, older horses, including some former racehorses, who appreciate having some purpose in their lives.
“When they retire they have nothing really to offer and they are sometimes slaughtered or live in very difficult conditions,” Neria said. “Not all horses receive fair and appropriate treatment. It’s a very fascinating opportunity to bring together traumatized horses and traumatized vets to interact and to overcome what they both suffer from.”
To Matthew Ryba, a Marine Corps veteran who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, the approach makes sense. “A horse is a kind of animal that a lot of soldiers are able to identify with, as a military animal. Like soldiers, they’re attuned to their environment. The way a horse feels when someone new is approaching them, it’s kind of a reflection of similar emotions that a vet would be experiencing.”
At one session Ryba was present for, a veteran entered saying he had a fear of horses. By the end of the ninety minutes, he didn’t want to leave. To Ryba, that was a very good sign.
“I’ve lost friends to suicide,” he said. “If they’d had this option, that’s something that could have broken down some walls for them.”