A traumatic experience, like the sudden death of a loved one, witnessing extreme and excessive violence or being under severe stress for a prolonged period of time, can have a huge impact on your health. For some people, experiencing trauma can leave them suffering with incapacitating psychological symptoms like re-experiencing the trauma, getting flashbacks and nightmares, emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
These are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and if it remains untreated they can last a lifetime, causing a complete shutdown of sufferers’ lives. It’s a condition that in particular affects those who have been in war zones.
If you interact a lot with horses or have seen the film or stage production of War Horse, you’ll know that there is a unique connection between horses and humans.
And this special connection is proving to be extremely beneficial for those suffering with the effects of trauma.
In the US, the military is continuously looking for ways to help soldiers and veterans cope with PTSD and they found that Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) — also known as Equine Therapy or Equestrian Therapy — shows a lot of potential in helping to ease the symptoms of trauma by focussing on improving physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning.
Now, I’ve heard of therapy dogs before, but therapy horses… Okay, maybe it’s not that far-fetched because Ancient Greek literature mentions the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic tool and during the post-WWII outbreak of polio in 1946, Scandinavia introduced Equine Therapy into their healthcare system.
Today, doctors use EAT for people who suffer from symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, autism, Alzheimer’s, dementia, delays in mental development, Down’s syndrome and other genetic syndromes, depression, brain injuries, abuse issues, and mental illness.
From personal experience, I can vouch for the power of horses and their impact on the mental health of people.
Shortly after my best friend’s little girl, Finley, turned 3 they were relocated to Holland. By the age of 5, Finley displayed a lot of behavioural issues — bordering on severe ADHD, autism or Asperger syndrome. In fact, Finley was such a handful that her parents stopped socialising with other people… it just became too difficult to control their child, who often put them in very embarrassing situations.
When Finley turned 5, they relocated to Colorado in the US. Finley’s behaviour got worse.
Thinking that the trauma of moving across the world twice before the age of 6 may have traumatised her child and having heard of the therapeutic effect horses can have on people suffering with mood disorders, my friend enrolled the young Finley at the local riding school.
Finley showed an instant affinity for the horses and within a few months her behaviour began to change for the better. To her parents surprise and dare I say relief, she became calmer, focussed and much happier… they even took the chance to invite people over to their house for the first time in a long time.
Today, Finley is one of the top performers in her class and is an exceptional and very competitive showjumper on a national level… reeling in those rosettes, medals and trophies. Her parents are convinced that if it wasn’t for the horses they would’ve raised a very different child.
Finley’s story is anecdotal I know and while there are many theories as to why and how EAT works, in my opinion the best therapy is the one that works.
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Disclaimer: Bear in mind the material contained in this article is provided for information purposes only. We are not addressing anyone’s personal situation. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.
How horses are helping heal PTSD, depression and more, published online 21.04.17, drmicozzi.com