A Four-Legged Solution for PTSD?
About one in five veterans of the Iraq war has post traumatic stress disorder. The federal government and many private insurers pay for traditional, evidence-based treatments, like talk therapy and medication. But some vets find relief in alternative therapies, that veterans’ benefits don’t pay for. One of those is working with horses.
A bill headed for congress would evaluate how effective these therapies are in treating PTSD. And a new program in New York is working to bring equine-assisted therapy to more veterans in the city. Miriam Sitz reports.
Though there’s not as much research into alternative therapies for PTSD, there’s plenty of anecdotal support for things like equine-assisted therapy. Take Chris Jones. He didn’t have any experience with horses until several years after serving in South Korea, California, and Iraq.
JONES: I’m a city kid so I didn’t grow up around horses. I didn’t think I was scared but I was definitely like, I was looking to the horse like, Are you cool? I’mma be cool as long as you cool. That’s what was going on.
Around the time he started his master’s degree last fall, he got a fellowship to work with GallopNYC, a nonprofit that gives riding lessons and other therapeutic horse activities to New Yorkers with disabilities. And, to veterans. Jones helped with outreach, and also participated in one of their first horse programs specifically for vets.
He found that working with the horses made him more conscious of his own behavior.
JONES: You have to be aware of self. The horses can pick up on when you’re trying to present yourself a certain way, but internally there’s anxiety. So what I saw was guys being aware of their feelings more. Or being able to express their feelings more.
Jones says it was relaxing, calming, even, and being around other vets felt instantly comfortable and familiar. But he doesn’t think the program is a cure-all.
JONES: I’m definitely not going to say it can completely replace talk therapy or anything like that, because we’re not claiming to be doctors, but we’re just saying it’s something about the animal that people respond to.
And more and more vets are responding. One morning this week, three veterans and twice as many volunteers gather around a table inside a barn at the Bronx Equestrian Center.
Suzy Marquard is a certified instructor with GallopNYC. She explains to the men why they’re here.
MARQUARD: We find that working with horses is a really healing thing. You can learn a lot about yourself by working with your horse, because this is the deal with horses, which y’all may be able to identify with, they’re prey animals, so they get hunted, they have to be always vigilant. You probably know what that feels like, right? Always watching out.
The men, two veterans of Vietnam and one who served in the 80s, seem to agree. The six-week curriculum teaches skills like grooming and and eventually riding the horses,but the veterans will also learn to interact with the animals.
MARQUARD: A Lot of interaction that goes on while you’re doing that with a horse that may give you some ideas about how you relate to other people for example.
A Marine corps vet chimes in.
FRANK: Horses have more sense than people believe it or not. you learn a lot about yourself with the horses. (MARQUARD: So you have some experience?) Oh yes ma’am.
He worked with horses as a young man, before he went to Vietnam and became one of what he calls “the walking dead.”
FRANK: With the walking dead in Vietnam. Go out 600 strong every morning, get 40 coming back in. That was every day.
Because vets bring those kind of experiences with them, Marquard says the organization avoids using the word therapy to describe the program.
MARQUARD: WE call it a leadership program because I think vets take to that better, they don’t want to be coming to therapy. And we don’t do therapy, we teach them horsemanship, which happens to be therapeutic.
For the next two hours, they work with the horses down in the arena—brushing them, leading them on walks around the ring. Eugene Graves served in the army here in the U.S. for three years.
GRAVES: I have depression, I suffer from some depression and anxiety, I think this is going to help me out a lot. (SITZ: have you ever worked with horses before?) No, and I always wanted to. And now I got the opportunity.
RITCHIE: The army, and all the services have a long history of working with animals. Think of the cavalry, soldiers riding horseback across the plains.
Doctor Cam Ritchie retired from the army after 28 years as a psychiatrist. She’s a PTSD specialist, now in private practice in Washington, D.C. She’s studied all kinds of treatments—including equine-assisted therapy. Richie explains…
RITCHIE: There is a lot of connection, and in many cases in the past, the soldier absolutely depended on their horse for their life.
She warns that alternative therapies don’t replace traditional treatments.
RITCHIE: I do not recommend that people throw out their pills and go and buy a horse.
But there is evidence that they work.
RITCHIE: We have a lot of accounts from veterans and other people with post traumatic stress disorder describing marked reduction of symptoms.
The problem is, there’s just not enough evidence, especially compared to more traditional therapies.
RITCHIE: A challenge is that most research studies are funded by companies who do not have a vested interest in exploring positive benefits of horses or of dogs.
And because there hasn’t been much research, it’s more difficult for anyone to get access.
RITCHIE: Usually insurance companies are only going to pay for treatments that are evidence-based.
The VA and private insurers will pay for equine-assisted therapy when it’s part of a physical, occupational, or speech therapy treatment plan.
Roxanne Chess Pierson is a New York-based occupational therapist trained in hippotherapy-—a specialized type of equine therapy. The horse’s movement, she says, helps to develop sensory and motor skills in patients.
CHESS: As an occupational therapist, instead of using things in a gym or out in the community, I’m using the horse and the horse area around the barn.
And when horses are used in this way, as a living, breathing therapeutic tool, therapists can code and bill for that.
CHESS: Families do find that they can be reimbursed oftentimes through insurance.
Although that kind of therapy isn’t what GallopNYC does, their therapeutic horsemanship program is free for veterans. But, as a nonprofit organization, there’s a limit to how many people they can help.
A bill headed for congress now, the COVER Act, would examine the potential benefits alternative treatments, including horse therapy provide.
And eventually, bolstered by the backing of enough research and evidence, it could become available to all veterans.
Miriam Sitz, Columbia Radio News.