how and why horses help veterans

This year the Veterans Administration awarded more than $1 million in grant funding to equine-assisted therapy (EAAT) and sports programs that help veterans cope with mental and physical service-related issues. A mental health specialist believes the grants recognize why horses are so well suited be centerpieces of these programs in the first place.

A total of $ 1 million of the Adaptive Sports Grant for fiscal 2018 was specifically designated and awarded for equine therapy for mental health issues, said Michael F Welch, the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of National Sports’ Paralympic program specialist. Additional equine programs that fell under the general adaptive sports category also received funding. 

“So more than $1.1 million actually went to equine programs,” Welch said.

It’s no surprise to Ann Sartori, PsyD—who consults for EAAT programs that treat veterans for trauma, traumatic brain injuries, sport performance, and anxiety—that horses are so well suited to assisting in therapeutic situations. She said research has shown that working with horses improves the overall quality of life on physiological, psychological, and spiritual levels.

“There can be a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate and also an improvement in neurobiochemical markers, such as endorphins and dopamine, which potentially leads to a sense of calm in the body,” Sartori said. “Studies show that potentially there is an improvement in overall well-being—reduced anxiety, improved empathy, expanded social interaction, increased self-confidence, self-control and self-esteem.”

In addition—though horses have their own unique histories, personalities, moods, and needs for connection—they function within a herd, and just observing herd behavior can make humans aware of their own challenges, Sartori said. That is especially significant for veterans, who are conditioned to be on alert and aware of self and others as they face their unique jobs and missions, she said.

“Veterans, from the beginning of their training, are conditioned to be on alert and/or in fight-or-flight situations; the brain that (functions) in that manner is changed,” Sartori said. “Whether in combat or not, this early training sets a biophysiological and social emotional pattern which carries through the transition out of the military and into their current lives.”

Horses help veterans concentrate on what’s happening at the moment, said Mitchell Reno, who served two tours in Afghanistan before taking part in the EAAT program at BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center. BraveHearts—which has locations in Harvard and Poplar Grove, Illinois—uses only Bureau of Land Management mustangs in its EAAT program.

“(Some veterans) are depressed because they are focused on the past and they are anxious because they are focused on the future,’” Reno said. “The mustangs are special because not only do horses force you to be in the moment,

but they know fear of the roundups and of people handling them, and they see every movement.”

Sartori said the horses help veterans learn to develop the relationships they need to reconnect with their communities, each other, and their families.

“Research demonstrates that even caring for horses by grooming, feeding, and being around them has positive effects on physiological and psychological functioning” Sartori said. “Equine-assisted therapies allow the veteran to experiment with caring for another again. The relationship that develops between the veteran and horse becomes a powerful change agent.”

Reno said that connection has changed him forever.

“I can’t even explain the gift that these horses have given me,” he said. “It’s amazing.”