How Horse Therapy Can Help Veterans With PTSD
In 1954-55 while attending a university in San Luis Obispo, California, I volunteered as a first responder to an on-campus grouping of 200 aluminum camp trailers. They were set on six acres to house returning Korean veterans and their families.
The Korean conflict was rife with Asian mind-altering substances. These young men came back psychologically torn by the rigors of war. In basic training they were washed of any trust they might have brought along with them from their, mostly normal upbringing.
Upon discharge, they were asked to go back into a civilian existence. They were told to love their wife and children, respect their friends and associates, work toward achieving a productive job and live a normal happy life. “Sure,” they might have said “trust my wife and children, trust all my friends and associates and everything will be just fine.” They might as well have been asked to move Mount Everest with a teaspoon. I answered an average of about three calls per night and it was often bloody.
As I recall it was at about this time that the corps of psychiatrists began dealing with what we had known as battle fatigue and shell shock would now be known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was simply a 19-year-old student. Soon after my introduction to all of this I remember questioning whether the word “disorder” was appropriate. Isn’t a disorder something we are born with that isn’t likely to change?
These young men were essentially normal when they went off to risk their lives for our country. Was I now to convince them that they have a disorder? I found that virtually every one of them despised the word. I began to address their problem as an injury because injuries heal. By this time in my life I had three world championships in the world of competition on horseback. I appreciated the fact that these animals come into the world with fifty million years of instinct that they must never trust.
It was in the early 1940s that I had discovered that horses have a silent language. With a lot of time, energy and ridicule I learned how to emulate the gestures of this language. Using the horses communication system I came to know how to engender trust in even the wildest of the equine species. It dawned on me one day that if I could take a PTSI hero who couldn’t trust and place them with a horse that was challenged to trust in the human, I could bring them together in a trusting partnership.
Since my now wife, Pat, and I were to be married in 1956, I walked away from this work as it would have surely been destructive for a new marriage. In 2010 the Discovery Military Channel asked me to reenter this world as the VA was having great difficulties with rampant suicide rates and extreme violent reactions by our veterans when returning to civilian life. I had actually been quite happy not dealing with this stress but I answered the call. The results were unbelievably gratifying and joyful.
One cannot oversell the satisfaction of bringing a destroyed life back to normality. The outcome in 2010 was far more successful than I could have ever dreamed and subsequent clinics that I have conducted here in California have easily reached the 80 percent mark for significant improvement even with a simple three-day clinic. I have dozens of letters from individuals that found huge levels of improvement and most of them will credit that moment when that huge horse gave them his trust.
It bothers me greatly to watch our government prepare legions of warriors, send them to fight and then simply return them to the civilian world with a “thank you for your service.” I am not blaming anyone, I am blaming everyone. Our heroes must reenter civilian life with the level of trust that they had when we washed it from them in basic training. I realize the washing must be done but it also must be undone.
The suicides are now at an alarming rate. Murders by veterans are at or near the highest they have ever been. Domestic violence wrecks the homes of the very people who saved those homes so that they would have a family domicile to return to. We owe these heroes, ourselves and our country a much stronger effort to make the “coming home” process more successful than we have allowed it to be over the most recent conflicts our country has been asked to deal with.