Monday, June 15, 2009

Horses as therapists: helping veterans heal

Horses as therapists: helping veterans heal

Breakthroughs occur, sometimes in a flood of tears

By Carol Ann Alaimo


Generations ago, horses were used to wage war. Now they're being used to heal the psychic wounds of war.

In an trend still viewed as strange by much of the mental-health mainstream, some Southern Arizona counselors are using the beasts as co-therapists to treat troops suffering from combat trauma.

"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'Are they kidding?' " said Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Richard Quinn, who returned from Iraq in 2007 with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But after a recent weekend spent communing with Kairos, a hulking black draft horse, Quinn is a believer in the power of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Almost immediately, he said, "I started feeling more relaxed and at ease" — a boon because Quinn, who served as a convoy commander overseas, has had few peaceful moments postwar.

"My wife says I cry in my sleep," said Quinn, 48, of Bisbee, whose convoys were hit twice by roadside bombs.

"At night I wake up soaking wet, and I don't even know what I dreamed about."

Animals have long been known to have a calming effect on people — witness therapy dogs that visit hospitals and nursing homes to soothe the sick. And horse-riding programs, such as those offered at Therapeutic Riding of Tucson, have been used for years to help people with disabilities improve balance and motor functions.

But equine-assisted psychotherapy is something different, experts say.

Unlike house pets, horses are prey animals. As such, they have keen abilities to take the emotional temperature of their environment, sensing distress in other creatures, which, in the wild, might mean danger is near.

"Horses have a unique ability to mirror human emotion," said Dr. Nancy Coyne, a psychiatrist who works with the Epona Center, a horse ranch in Sonoita that offers such treatment.

"They read body language and expressions. They can pick up subtle changes in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration."

Using horses to treat mental-health issues is relatively new in the world of psychotherapy — so new that it tends to raise eyebrows among traditionalists.

"Certainly, the mainstream thinks it's a little odd," said Coyne, who recently treated Quinn and several other local soldiers in a pilot program with Fort Huachuca, an Army post 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

Putting a troubled person in a pen or pasture with a therapy horse evokes responses from both beings, practitioners say.

For the humans, the impact can be more powerful than years of traditional talk therapy.

"I've had clients who can sit and talk for years about their problems and how much they'd like to change. But when they get out with the horses, things start to happen," said Toni Leo, a Sierra Vista psychologist.

Leo has treated many current and former military members and spouses for issues such as grief, anxiety, depression and childhood trauma. She's been using equine psychotherapy in her private practice for about two years with horses from a sanctuary she runs.

The therapy sessions don't involve riding, Leo said. Typically, the human clients are assigned a task — for example, they're given a halter and lead rope and told to "go catch a horse."

The interplay that follows gives clues to the client's inner state.

"It's not about catching the horse," Leo said. "We want to see how the person problem-solves and what comes up in the interaction."

Sometimes the horses avoid the humans, or come in close and crowd their space. Sometimes they'll lie down and thrash about, or sigh and rest their chins on the clients' shoulders. Or they'll gesture with their heads toward various sections of the clients' bodies.

Leo asks her clients to imagine whom the horse might represent to them, and what the horse might be trying to say.

It's at this point that breakthroughs can occur, sometimes in a flood of tears. At times, Leo said, she's seen horses "wrap their necks around someone who is crying, sort of cradle them almost like a hug."

"It sounds like magic, but it's not. The horses are just being themselves," Leo said. The method encompasses elements of other mental-health treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, she said.

Leo plans to expand her work to include war veterans with combat trauma at a new horse therapy center in Hereford, about 10 miles south of Fort Huachuca. The Hero Hearts Equicenter is expected to open this summer and also will offer therapeutic riding programs.

Therapeutic Riding of Tucson also may branch out into equine-assisted psychotherapy for veterans, depending on demand, said Leslie Esselburn, executive director. One of TROT's staffers recently became a licensed counselor trained in equine psychotherapy, which will allow the agency to offer such care, she said.

At some local programs, the price tag is steep. At the Epona Center, for example, a weekend stay with one follow-up visit costs $1,200 per person. The Hero Hearts program plans to charge $1,500 for three months of weekly sessions. Leo, on the other hand, charges $110 an hour in her private practice — not far off the going rate for traditional psychotherapy.

The higher-priced programs are trying to raise donations to offset the cost, so troops in need can attend for free. But fundraising has been a challenge so far in the depressed economy.

To date, only a handful of research studies have examined the effectiveness of equine psychotherapy — and none looked at the success rate for treating combat trauma. The study samples were small and drew mixed conclusions. Still, the method is gaining favor based on rave reviews of those who use it.

The American Psychological Association, for example, two years ago approved continuing-education credits for psychologists who take specialized training in such treatment. Equine therapy "was judged and found to have some validity," said Kim Mills, a spokeswoman for the association, which represents psychologists nationwide.

Prescott College, about 200 miles north of Tucson, offers the nation's only master's program in equine-assisted mental health.

For now, the impact on veterans is being measured by soldiers such as Staff Sgt. Joshua Wright.

Wright, 29, a former infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division, returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with nerve damage, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that it turned him into a recluse.

He now is assigned to a medical unit at Fort Huachuca and recently took part in the horse-therapy weekend with Quinn and several other local soldiers and spouses.

Wright, a Casa Grande native, was skeptical when he heard about horse therapy. "I thought, 'Yeah, right. Sure. Whatever.' "

In two days at Epona, he and other veterans learned breathing techniques to calm themselves and were able to see the impact it had on the animals. Once humans reduced their anxiety, the horses would cooperate, he said.

In one exercise, Wright and his wife, Heather, stood on either side of a horse, leaning into the beast as they linked hands above. They could feel their own hearts beating, and the horse's.

"It was good for us to be here," said Heather Wright, 37, who has watched her husband struggle to cope with nightmares and outbursts.

Joshua Wright said the experience "taught me to listen to my body instead of just reacting."

"It was nice," he said, "to start to understand what's going on with me."

To Learn More

The Web sites of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association — — and the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association — — describe the principles of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at or at 573-4138.

Horses as therapists: helping veterans heal

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