How horse riding and ‘equine therapy’ has helped PTSD sufferers

How horse riding and ‘equine therapy’ has helped PTSD sufferers

It has long been reported that household animals like cats and dogs can be fantastic for those suffering from anxiety and depression, offering natural support and comfort. But have you ever considered how horses may be able to help those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder?

Research studies have shown that therapeutic horseback riding can lead to a significant statistical decrease in PTSD symptoms, such as insomnia, flashbacks or panic attacks, after just three weeks, while after six weeks, this also becomes classed as a clinically significant decrease. It has been found that there is a 66.7% likelihood for those engaging in horseback riding to have a lower PTSD score at three weeks, and 87.5% likely after six weeks.

How can horse riding help whose with PTSD?

As the Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development (JRRD) explains, “As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant until they learn they are not in danger. Unlike with many dogs, who trust unconditionally, horses require humans to work to gain their trust. Because of their own hypervigilance, [those] with PTSD easily understand and can relate to the trust and hypervigilance in a horse.”

“Other symptoms of PTSD are emotional numbness, a feeling of “not being in one’s body”, and a lack of awareness of body language, so [those] with PTSD learn to become more aware of their bodies, their body language, and expression of emotion through their bodies. They must become aware of the body language of the horse, which helps them become aware of others’ body language too.”

These shared behaviours between horses and those with PTSD – from being oversensitive, easily startled, hypervigilant to danger, and so forth – mean healing can come from a common ground that another human may not be able to give, especially not in a medical setting such as the hospital. Margaret ‘Peg’ Steele is about to embark upon a 2,300 mile horseback ride to raise awareness for equine-assisted therapy and notes, “It is impossible for an individual suffering from PTSD to work with a horse since the horse reads all of these emotions in you and will start to emulate them. This causes the client to have to work on their own issues to make progress with the horse. In a sense, the horse works like a mirror.”

Building Relationships

Known as equine therapy, or equine-assisted therapy, horses are able to promote spiritual, physical, psychological and occupational healing in post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers. Non-threatening, trusting and open relationships can be built with these connections breeding further positive feelings of patience, love, respect, safety and empathy. Equine therapy is found to reduce levels of anxiety and stress, improve moods, create a sense of peace and contentment, among other benefits.

Steele explains, “I know that if I am having a bad day; if I am upset, angry or just sad, my horse knows and becomes more difficult to manage that day. I have to work on myself if I intend to handle him safely and effectively.”

PTSD sufferer Kane noted, “When the condition bites it is most debilitating and a lot of my management of the condition is actually avoiding a lot of triggers, but when I feel at my worst I simply have to sleep it off. I had Saxon a few weeks when I was heading to the stables and it really started to bite, I dragged myself out the car and got him ready for a short ride down the bridle path at our yard. I forced my self onto his back and within about 5 to 10 mins of walking down the route the symptoms had eased considerably, usually it would have taken a 3 hour sleep and perhaps a diazepam to get the same result ( the latter I have tried to avoid taking as much as possible unless I felt there was no other option) This was the first time I noticed the effect it had on my symptoms, it has happened again several times since.”

Although for some people equine therapy may not be the answer for easing symptoms of PTSD, by combining different strategies, these can all come together to offer huge benefits.

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

REFERENCES: NCBI, Rehab, Psychology Today, Daily Tribune, ReutersUS Department of Veterans Affairs, Huffington Post

IMAGE:  Courtesy of Kirsten Lechance

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