The Enemy Within

By Laurel van der Linde

On Saturday, June 22, 2019 the headline on the front page of the LA Times read “The Final Foe.” It was an extensive article detailing the story of two platoon buddies, veterans of the war in the Middle East, and the difficulties they had returning to civilian life. One struggled more than the other and resolved to end the pain. Knowing his intentions, his friend raced behind him on a bike trying to prevent the inevitable. The gun shots told him he was too late.

These tragedies are legion throughout our nation. Suicide among veterans averages 22 a day. As a population, we all have some general idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But living with it on a daily basis is a different circumstance. California is one of three states with the highest population of returning veterans. And here is a statistic that may surprise you: 7 percent of that population, which is 10,000 veterans, resides in the Santa Clarita Valley. Yet, SCV holds no branch of the Veteran’s Administration. Answering that need is the Veterans’ Collaborative, there to assist veterans by connecting them to organizations primed to help them with their specific needs. Skilled in the treatment of PTSD is Blue Star Ranch whose therapeutic treatments may surprise you, as the therapists – are horses.

“Traditional (talk) therapy doesn’t work,” says Nancy Pitchford, director of Blue Star Ranch. “It doesn’t take into consideration the training and psychological conditioning our veterans receive in order to become a soldier. They are shipped overseas as a team and that combat unit becomes their family unit. These are the people they come to rely on, the ones who have their backs.”

This training and their experiences “do not translate back into the civilian family unit,” she adds, as no one can understand what they have been through except those who were there. Furthermore, traditional therapy continues for an extended period of time, once a week for 18 months on the average. Therapy sessions at Blue Star demonstrate a 35-40 percent rate of improvement in PTSD symptoms in 10 weeks. “We address the primary symptoms – anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, communication and coping in today’s society,” says Pitchford. “There is no cure but we can give them the tools and skills to manage these symptoms.”

Our returning veterans are still on constant “high alert,” as survival in the field dictates this. “They are trained to react, not to think,” Pitchford says. “The slightest thing can trigger a conditioned response, a helicopter passing overhead, the backfire of an engine.”

She recalls one veteran who continually scanned the surrounding mountains during his therapy session. When asked to express his concern with the terrain his immediate response was, “That’s where the enemy comes from.”

But the enemy is no longer in the mountains; rather, it’s within the individual. At Blue Star Ranch veterans are welcomed with a hug when they arrive and given a hug when they leave.
“They are huggers,” says Pitchford.

They quickly realize that the staff (which includes the horses) is there for them. Here, they are neither judged nor intimidated and the therapy work with the horses allows them to “let out their inner demons.” Moving to the new, 5-acre facility in Newhall allows Blue Star to increase both its space and its herd so that more veterans can receive the help they need. Currently, Blue Star averages 8-10 sessions per week. Now, that number can be doubled. Meet the equine therapists: Captain Jack Sparrow, an Appaloosa gelding; Mariah, a Mustang mare; Quigley, a Morgan gelding; Sammy, a mini donkey; and Mini Cooper, a mini horse. Each one, large or small, is very skilled at their job.

Blue Star Ranch is one of the 500 organizations certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Founded in 1999 by Lynn Thomas for the specific purpose of using equines in psychotherapy for victims of trauma, EAGALA is international, operating in 41 countries. When asked how the horses are trained for therapeutic work, Pitchford succinctly states, “They’re not. They already know what we need.”

For those who work with these animals on a regular basis, this comes as no surprise. Horses are highly intuitive creatures with infallible instincts. They have had to be, as those qualities are innate to their survival. As Pitchford explains it, both humans and horses are herd animals. Both species are also prey animals, their basal instinct being “fight or flight.” Therefore, we intrinsically understand each other.

“Horses are real and present beings living in the here and now,” explains Pitchford. “They ‘tune in’ to your emotions.” She has also observed how astute the horses are in quickly analyzing and assessing who needs their emotional support and how, over time, they improve at their job. “They can read the pain,” she adds.

Each session includes the assistance of a mental health specialist, Katie Ryan, an equine specialist, Nancy Pitchford, and one of the five Blue Star Ranch equine therapists. No fees are charged for their services.

The new address for Blue Star Ranch is 20827 Placeritos Canyon in Newhall. For further information about their equine therapy program, or to make donations, visit the website at BlueStarRanch.org or call (661) 312 -6184.

It is one thing to fight the overt enemy; it is another to fight the enemy within.