Eleven Things to Know about the Man O’ War Project

Researchers are learning about the benefits of equine-assisted therapy for the treatment of military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. (America's Best Racing photo)

1. What is it? The Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center is the first-ever clinical research study to determine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy and establish guidelines for the treatment of military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

2. Why was it founded? Borne of his commitment to public service and his love of racehorses and their aftercare, the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center is the brainchild of Earle Mack, the former U.S. Ambassador to Finland.  

Earle Mack

A businessman, philanthropist, diplomat, and veteran of the U.S. Army, Mack envisions the Man O’ War Project as a necessary endeavor to better provide for the mental health care of our veterans suffering from PTSD.

3. The numbers are startling: Up to 30 percent of veterans are affected by PTSD. There are 20 veteran suicides per day. Veterans make up 18 percent of all U.S. suicides, yet half of all veterans with PTSD never receive any treatment.

4. What is Equine-assisted therapy? Equine-assisted therapy works by treating the symptoms of PTSD through therapeutic interactions with horses.  Where other treatments like group or one-on-one therapy often fail, equine-assisted therapy provides the ideal environment for putting veterans at ease and making them feel comfortable, a critical step toward openness to treatment.

When veterans are outdoors in a non-clinical environment interacting with horses, their experience often does not “feel” like therapy.  They can lower their guard, focus on something outside of themselves, and be open to getting the help they need while allowing themselves to decompress and heal.

5. Why are horses helpful in treating veterans with PTSD? First, horses are prey animals and naturally skittish (hypervigilant), presenting an opportunity for veterans to recognize and understand fear responses. Horses are also naturally sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues, and thus provide good feedback to the veterans about how they are communicating. Horses, as herd animals, live in a social structure and seek out social relationships. Finally, horses exist “in the moment” and are forgiving, patient, and nonjudgmental, allowing opportunities for veterans to make mistakes and learn from them.

6. Why not use dogs instead of horses? Unlike dogs, which grant love unconditionally, relationships with horses must be earned. One must build trust with a horse for it to welcome you into his/her world. Through equine-assisted therapy, veterans re-learn how to build trust and how to trust themselves again – valuable tools to help veterans succeed with family, work, and social relationships. Horses were selected as the focal point of this treatment because of their natural disposition, which is believed to be inherently conducive to treating PTSD.

7. How is the Man O’ War Project different from the other forms of equine-assisted therapy? While many groups offer equine-assisted therapy and claim positive results, the reality is that equine-assisted therapy is not well-studied and its efficacy for PTSD, or any other condition, has not been clinically established. The primary research aim of the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center is to determine if equine-assisted therapy works for veterans with PTSD. To this end, the Man O’ War Project has standardized the treatment and created a treatment manual, ensuring competent, consistent delivery guided by the best expertise and best practical guidance.

8. How is the treatment research program conducted? The Man O’ War Project treatment study is conducted at the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia, N.J. and is comprised of the following elements:

  • Groups of 3-6 veterans; two horses
  • Eight 90-minute sessions weekly
  • Groups are led by a mental-health professional and an equine specialist, with experience “wranglers” to ensure safety
  • Veterans complete questionnaires before and after each session and are clinically evaluated regularly
  • All sessions are videotaped and reviewed by a research and clinical team

Veterans undergo a rigorous, state-of-the-art clinical evaluation prior to being treated in order to determine that they have a diagnosis of PTSD. They are re-evaluated midway through the treatment (after session four), again after they complete the protocol (after session eight), and finally during a follow-up session three months later.

9. What are some of the benefits to the veterans? Through this process, the veterans increase emotional awareness and the ability to recognize and regulate emotions. Veterans also learn to more effectively interact with the horses and, by extension, with the people in their lives.

10. What other technologies are used in this study? To incorporate the highest levels of scientific rigor, the Man O’ War Project research team at Columbia University is using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to visualize the impact of equine-assisted therapy -PTSD. The Man O’ War Project is the only equine-therapy program in the nation to utilize neuroimaging. MRI scans provide an objective measure to further validate and strengthen the clinical data of the research. Additionally, the Columbia research team can identify the regions of the brain and the circuitry involved in PTSD to directly treat these affected areas. By documenting structural changes to the brain before and after treatment, the Man O’ War Project hopes to explain why veterans respond well to this particular treatment regime and tailor the treatment to affected areas of the brain.

11. How can I make a donation to support the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center? If you’re interested in making a tax-deductible contribution to the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center to help the research and therapy team of experts continue this important work to help the millions of veterans who so desperately need effective treatment, you can send a donation to:

Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, Inc.

Attn.: Man O’ War Project at CUIMC

150 Broadway, Suite 301, Riverview Center

Menands, NY, 12204

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