Of What Use is a Horse?

By Laurel van der Linde

For centuries horses have been an integral part of military combat. Even during WWII, General George S. Patton’s Third Army had the Second Cavalry Group under the command of Colonel Charles Reed, which, through a series of serendipitous and surreptitious circumstances, was responsible for the rescue of Europe’s finest horses via “Operation Cowboy.” After showing courage on traditional battlefields, horses now serve in a different war, a more insidious confrontation, as the combat continues after the actual fighting has stopped. These intelligent, empathetic, highly sensitive animals now play an important role for our military: rehabilitating veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“They come to us after they have tried everything else,” says Nancy Pitchford, founder of Blue Star Ranch in Saugus. Pitchford’s non-profit is a member of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an international organization focusing on the use of horses in psychotherapy for victims of trauma. EAGALA was founded in 1999 by Lynn Thomas and now has more than 500 certified programs in 41 countries. Blue Star Ranch is such a one, its specific purpose designed to assist our returning veterans. What is immediately significant in this program is that there is absolutely no riding involved. Rather, the horses are enlisted as counselors and all work is done from the ground.

It is not possible for any of us to fully comprehend what our veterans have experienced in active duty – not friends, not family, not the psychologists nor the psychiatrists. Trying to re-acclimate to civilian life is extraordinarily difficult. The anger, the bitterness and the depression resulting from extended duty overseas have taken their toll. “We have a volunteer army, so some of them have done as many as six, seven or even eight tours,” Pitchford reminds us.
And the consequences of active duty are not eradicated by returning stateside. This includes the ability, or rather the lack thereof, to seek assistance. “It’s not in their nature or their training to ask for help,” Pitchford says. “It is hard for them to trust anyone outside of their military buddies.”

But even for those who do seek help from our government’s Veterans Association, the line is long, with a waiting list as long as three years before a veteran can see a mental health professional. “They shouldn’t have to wait,” Pitchford states adamantly.

While the traditional treatment of talk therapy yields positive results over a period of time, equine therapy is able to expedite the coping/healing process. “Four sessions probably equal a year and a half of talk therapy,” says Manny Perdomo, a graduate of Blue Star Ranch. “You get to the nitty gritty pretty quick. The thing with PTSD is you don’t even know you have it. It’s masked, concealed. Your anger just escalates, until one day you’re out in public punching the concrete until your knuckles bleed.”

It seems we are ill-equipped to understand this kind of stress and the resulting trauma – unless one happens to be a horse.

Horses are very intuitive animals. They had to be, in order to survive as a species. Now they employ this heightened sensitivity to work through a series of well-thought-out and individually planned activities. Through these exercises, the client is able to work through the problems plaguing his or her life and the horse assists by reflecting that client’s emotional state.

At each session there are three experts involved, one-on-one, with each client: the mental specialist, the equine specialist and, of course, the horse. The client is asked to set up patterns or obstacles symbolic of their current mental and emotional state, then guide and/or negotiate the horse through these patterns or over these obstacles. No equipment, such as halters or lead ropes, is used. Most sessions last an hour, but “we don’t hold to an hour if we sense a breakthrough,” says Pitchford. “We keep going.”

Blue Star Ranch also involves family members in these sessions. The number of sessions required to assist in rehabilitating a veteran averages eight to ten, but is strictly determined by the individual’s needs. “Our mental specialist, Katie Ryan, and I confer at session eight and evaluate their progress,” Pitchford says.

The program works because “veterans tend to be stuck in certain patterns of coping,” says Stephanie Walsh, Ph.D., a psychologist for EAGALA. “Talk therapy … is not as powerful as the experience in the arena, as far as getting the immediate feedback from the horses, and it opens up avenues for them to find their own solutions to their problems.”

“Devin,” a Navy veteran, sums up her experiences: “People see things from the outside looking in. We’re stuck in the inside, so we don’t see what it is. The horses actually reflect the source of trauma.”

And, sometimes, the treatment is as simple as just sitting with the horses and quietly letting the tears flow. “The horses support them,” Pitchford says.

Blue Star Ranch currently has two horses, an Appaloosa gelding named Captain Jack Sparrow, a mare, and a mini-donkey that Pitchford refers to as “just a hoot and a holler.” The plan is to move Blue Star Ranch to its own, larger facility and acquire more horses so as to treat more veterans. “We are only limited by our budget,” Pitchford says.

Despite its success in treating veterans and supporting studies conducted by both the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense about the success of equine therapy, Blue Star receives no financial aid from either the VA, the DOD, nor any other federal or state government entity. Instead, it must function on fundraising activities, charitable grants and personal donations. Their major fundraiser, a polo match, will be held on October 7. For additional information, visit bluestarranch.org.

“We believe our clients have the best answers for their problems when given the opportunities to find them,” says EAGALA founder Lynn Thomas. “The veterans really are the experts in their own healing process.”

Or, as Winston Churchill cogently put it, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

Laurel van der Linde is the owner and trainer of Avalon Arabian Farms specializing in balanced, centered and relaxed training for both horse and rider. For more information, email lvd177@gmail.com or call 661-600-3365.