‘A Special Bond’: The Power of Equine-Assisted Therapy

Equine-assisted therapy programs at Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary, Heroes and Horses, and the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center are having a profound impact treating veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (America's Best Racing)

In recent years there has been a rise in the number of organizations and individual therapists who have turned to horses to help veterans heal. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) as a professional practice only dates back to the mid-1990s, when there were only a few people who were testing out ideas for how to use horses in their social work and theraputic practices. That number grew steadily over the years until 2013, when the Obama administration made federal funds available for groups doing EAP work with veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By then there were several dozen such groups, and they were showing impressive and surprising results.

Christine Bruckner works with veterans at Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary in upstate New York. In the early 2000s, while Bruckner was getting her master's degree, she sought out some of the early practicioners of equine therapy to learn as much as she could. Bruckner grew up mucking stalls in exchange for riding lessons, and her love for horses led her to social work. When she was old enough to teach other children to ride, she became a certified theraputic riding instructor, and she chose to work with children with disabilities. She was only teaching the kids to ride, but she could see that there was so much more to it than just riding. She saw that children who were lableled emotionally disabled were opening up more around the horses, relaxing, building confidence, and sharing things about their lives. At an early age and without advanced degrees, Bruckner could see the potential that horses had to help others heal.

In 2003 when Bruckner graduated with her master's degree, she trained with Greg Kersten and Lynn Thomas, who co-founded Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, one of the first EAP nonprofit organizations in the United States. Over the years Bruckner has trained with a number of other equine therapy pioneers, learning as much as she can about all of the various directions and theories that have emerged in this young practice.

“Some people specialize in trauma, others focus on the spiritual element,” Bruckner says. “I try to incorporate as much of everything I’ve learned as I can.”

What she’s learned, the fundamental underpinning of equine-assisted therapy, is that horses have a unique and powerful connection to humans, one that can be used theraputically.

“Horses are herd animals. They are also prey animals. They are in tune with each other, the environment. They protect each other, they look out for predators,” Bruckner says. “They’ve co-evolved with humans, so they’re in tune with us, too.”

Micah Fink has seen this effect, too. A former Navy SEAL with a total of 13 combat deployments, Fink now runs the Montana-based group Heroes and Horses. At the end of his 14-year career in the armed services and as a military contractor, Fink found the nonprofits doing work with returning veterans to be lacking what so many returning from combat really needed in order to deal with the psychological impact of war. There were services for veterans who were injured or lost limbs, and there were programs that provided veterans with things like vacations or trips to sporting events, but Fink believed that in order to make progress through the emotional and psychological issues many veterans were faced with, they shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. They shouldn’t be coddled. His program takes groups of veterans on a months-long trek through the Montana wilderness on horseback, learning survival skills and being forced to navigate the remote mountainous terrain alone with only their horse to keep them company and help them along.

Fink often says that horses act as “mirrors” for the humans they come into contact with. He discovered this on one of his back-country treks, while working with a new horse who was hot and unmanageable.

Fink tells the story: “Daily, I would fight with this animal, both of us escalating higher and higher until the relationship came to peak in the back country of Montana. As things became worse in the mountains, I separated from the pack string, doing the only thing that I new how to do - make the good thing easy and the bad thing hard. Around 9 p.m. that night, alone and in the back country, was a major turning point for me as I realized that I had to change the way I communicated to reach this horse … we were both communicating AT each other, not TO each other. I sat there and put my hands over my face, tears were not in short supply. I calmed down, got back on him, and started a whole new dialogue. In that moment, I realized that I was the one who had to change, not the horse. That was the beginning of me learning a new language, a language that speaks from the inside out, not the outside in.”

Bruckner says that this mirroring is where equine therapy takes root.

“Horses have to look out for us, they know how to read us. Horses have learned how to tune in to humans from a distance. You can’t trick them,” she said. “They can read what’s going on underneath all of that. Half the time, that’s what veterans and a lot of us are dealing with. We might behave one way and feel another. When we constantly do that, that dissonance makes us unhappy. We’re being untrue to ourselves.”

For veterans, those feelings are particularly acute. According to the Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, as many as 30 percent of veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can trigger flashbacks to traumatic experiences and lead veterans to withdraw, lose interest in things they once enjoyed, feel skittish or scared, or feel confused about what is happening to them. Often, PTSD goes undiagnosed and untreated. But even when it is treated, typically with treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, which are traditionally effective in helping victims of trauma, there are high dropout rates among veterans. According to the Man O’ War Project, those treatments have shown limited effectiveness.

Earle Mack, the former Ambassador to Finland who initiated and funds the Man O’ War Project, says the status quo in treating PTSD is unacceptable.

“The scientific and medical community has made great strides in understanding, recognizing, and diagnosing PTSD among veterans in the last several decades,” he said. “While our veterans have far more resources than ever before, many still do not receive treatment. Tragically, 20 veterans lose their lives to suicide every day.”

Mack grew up around horses, riding down trails in Westchester near the Rockefeller estate. When he finished college, he bought his first racehorse and got involved in the horse racing industry as an owner and a breeder. Working with horses, he learned the good that horses could do in building up emotional confidence.

“I know from experience that it’s a challenge to win the confidence of a horse – they are hypersensitive animals. But once you do win their confidence, it provides a real sense of accomplishment.”

Mack is also a U.S. Army veteran, and when he heard about EAP, he believed it could make a real difference helping veterans with PTSD. In 2015, he solicited the help of Columbia University to study the therapy, and he gifted the program more than $1 million from the Earle Mack Foundation.

The Man O’ War Project treats veterans over an eight-week period, working with therapists and horses in “non-riding interactions.” In addition to treating veterans using EAP, the project is also working to gather data and develop best practices for therapists to use around the country. The treatment program, however, stands in stark contrast to what many veterans experience in more traditional trauma therapies.

“They’re not in a therapist’s office – they are at a beautiful horse farm, interacting with caring mental-health professionals and the horses. It’s a totally different experience,” Mack said. “The equine therapy program at Columbia also doesn’t ask veterans to address their traumas directly, as traditional treatments often do. Rather, the veterans are brought through a series of interactions with the horses that help them better understand and regulate their own behaviors and emotions.”

These interactions often seem simple on the surface but are actually incredibly potent in getting veterans to face their fears and anxieties.

“I will have a veteran pick the horse’s foot, and the horse won’t let them until they are congruent. It’s very strange,” Bruckner explained. “The horse won’t do what you want unless your intention is true. Otherwise, you can be doing everything perfectly and they’ll just stand there. They will reward when you’re congruent. That’s what so helpful about them.”

This is not only different from traditional therapies, it’s even different from how other animal-based therapies work.

“Dogs are amazing but they provide a different purpose. They are always giving comfort when you need it, they do things for you,” Bruckner said. “The horse isn’t going to do that. They might comfort you if you’re being congruent. If you’re crying on the outside but inside nothing is wrong, the horse will know. It could nip you. I’ve seen a horse nudge and nip at someone who was crying. When she became assertive, when she matched up inside and outside, he backed off.”

Many of the horses that Fink works with at Heroes and Horses are purchased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and come to him wild.

“They are fearful, aggressive, fight or flight response. Our job is to put them through a process where they can realize what they are capable of, and they choose relationship over fear and create a bond with us as their leaders,” Fink said.

Yet, even wild horses share a special bond with humans, and sometimes the wild ones are even more useful in therapy.

“Wild horses and wild veterans are both needing the same thing — they both need a purpose, and purpose allows them both to overcome their external circumstances,” Fink said. “It's the process that ultimately helps reveal their purpose. We manage the process, but we don't control it. Both veterans and wild mustangs are a product of mismanagment and failed processes. We provide an environment where they can choose a new course, one that is right for them as individuals.”

All of these programs are producing more than just positive results from the veterans that participate in them; they’re also experiencing a rising demand. And the veterans who go through EAP are in turn volunteering to help out with the programs or to continue to work with horses, either in the equine industry or through other theraputic programs. This is helping to expand the gospel of horse-based therapy for veterans. The Earle Mack Foundation has committed to pledge more money to the Man O’ War Project this year, and there are waiting lists for programs around the country.

But EAP doesn’t just help rehabilitate our service men and women returning from combat. These programs are also providing a second chance for horses, from rescued wild horses to racehorses at the end of their careers. One of the Man O’ War Project’s equine therapists is a former racehorse named Crafty Star, but he wasn’t so much a star on the racetrack. He took 20 tries to break his maiden, which was his only win in a 26-race career while racing at Monmouth Park and Parx Racing. At the Bergen Equestrian Center, where the Man O’ War Project’s therapy program is held, Crafty Star is quite the star today. He is a favorite among veterans who go through the program because he is incredibly gentle, a horse who understands trauma and bonds well with humans that show him affection. While the horses like Crafty Star help our veterans heal, veterans help these horses as well. It’s part of the design. If there was no reciprocation, there would be no mirror. And it’s that mirror that makes horses so special to those who need to see inside themselves, to see what might be broken, and to fix it.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!