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How Horses Can Heal Humans

woman and horse

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Therapeutic horseback riding helps veterans with PSTD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can happen to anyone who has been exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. For veterans, this is a national public health concern, with an estimated 2 to 17 percent of veterans suffering from PTSD symptoms, which may include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, difficulty sleeping, agitation and more. Symptoms may not occur for months or even years after the traumatic event, and PTSD is notoriously difficult to treat. But a new study involving veterans with combat-related PTSD showed that therapeutic horseback riding programs may provide both immediate and longer-lasting relief.

The study was conducted at Baylor University with veterans who had served in war missions in Iraq or Afghanistan and been diagnosed with PTSD. It involved an eight-week riding program, with 90 minute sessions each. Participants shared a meal before each session, and for the first four weeks, groomed the horse and worked with the animal in a round pen. In the second four weeks, they did riding and horsemanship exercises, with a riding instructor certified by Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) supervising. Riders got to choose which horse they rode and were accompanied by a trained volunteer who was a military service member. A control group of veterans with PTSD did not did do the riding program. Both groups, however, also continued any psychotherapy, medication or cognitive behavioral therapy they were already undergoing prior to the riding program experiment.

After eight weeks, the veterans who were in the riding program showed clinically significant improvements in depression, anxiety and were enjoying an improved quality of life. The study’s lead author, Beth Lanning, Ph.D., associate chair and associate professor of public health in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, wrote, “The veterans felt less anxious, depressed, angry and isolated than before the intervention. They indicated feelings of self-acceptance, increased confidence, gratitude and hope, as well as increased patience.”

To date, this is the largest published study designed to examine the immediate and long-term effects of therapeutic riding on PTSD for military service members, Lanning reported. “Animal-assisted activities and therapies, specifically with horses, are viable and potentially effective intervention options to boost mental and physical health for various populations, including with veterans,” she wrote.

About the Author

Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle.

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