Heroes and Horses

An experimental program uses horses to help returning combat vets deal with PTSD.

Horses have accompanied warriors onto almost every battlefield in human history.
Now they’re helping heal the wounds of war.

Horses have been used effectively in treating autism, anxiety disorders, depression and even grief, and advocates of the growing field of equine therapy cite the ineffable connection between humans and soldiers.

As Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

One Ojai ranch is treating soldiers returning from combat who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Marie Ortiz, an equine specialist at the ranch, calls the sessions between man and beast “horse time.” They force participants to be in the here and now.

“They are grounded,” she said. “They’re touching. They’re sensing. They’re outside. It’s a whole experience that takes them out of their rut.”

War veterans don’t ride the horses at Reins of H.O.P.E (Human Opportunity Partnering with Equines), a non-profit that launched "H.O.P.E for Warriors" a year ago.

Rather, the horses are employed as a conduit for trauma and difficult emotions, Ortiz said.

Ortiz works with Reins of H.O.P.E owner Julie Sardonia, a licensed marriage and family therapist. The Warrior program is certified by The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an international non-profit.  To comply with the terms of certification, each therapy session is observed by both a mental health professional like Sardonia, and an equine specialist like Ortiz.

Sardonia explains that the horse is a powerful presence in a therapy session because the horse “will mirror what a person is feeling. If they’re angry on the inside but showing everything is great on the outside, a horse will pick that up.”

Sardonia believes equine therapy is a great option for military men and women because traditional therapy works by sitting down and talking –something many soldiers are reluctant to do.

Alex Mack is a veteran who found his way to the Warrior program.

In 2005, Mack deployed to Iraq as a Ranger with the second striker brigade. As a captain, he felt an added sense of responsibility for the lives of the men under his command.

“When you wake up and you don’t know whether you’re going to live or die and you really have come to grips with either outcome, that’s when you know that you’re at war,” Mack said the violence of war became his everyday existence. “It gets to the point where it’s not difficult,” he said. “It’s reality and it’s just what you do. When people die, when explosions go off, it’s not something that’s out of the norm. That just becomes normal.”

Mack came home from the war, back to the familiar mountains of Ventura where he grew up. At the H.O.P.E. corral, on a one-acre ranch surrounded by orange groves in the Topa Topa Mountains, he began the difficult process of working through hidden war trauma.

On a recent day, Mack and another war veteran, Col. George Compton, embarked on a typical therapy session.

At Sardonia’s suggestion, the men assembled two structures in the corral, one to represent their military life and the other their civilian life. Empty plastic barrels, orange safety cones and swimming noodles represented the obstacles they faced in both parts of their lives.

Then Sardonia asked them to identify three coping skills they needed to deal with the transition. A horse would represent each skill.

Mack suggested courage because, “with any transition you have to have courage.”
Compton suggested patience because, “a lot of our people when they come back from that combat situation, they don’t have that patience.”

Mack rounded out the three, suggesting self-awareness.

During the session Sardonia and Ortiz noted every move the horses made – or didn’t. Where were they in the corral? What were they paying attention to? What direction were the horses’ ears pointed? Were they moving toward or away from something?

Almost immediately the horse dubbed “courage” headed over to military life. The horses designated “patience” and “self-awareness” seemed less interested in the civilian life area of the corral – they needed to be coaxed over.

“All we have to do is observe what’s going on with that horse and make that comment, ‘Gee, he’s stuck,’ Ortiz said. If the horse “doesn’t want to move, then they [the soldier] will say ‘Well, I am not ready to move,’ so it transfers.”

The women have full confidence in the horses’ ability to sense how someone is really feeling.
Sardonia often refers to the horses as “1200 pounds of lie detector.”

Ortiz agreed. Soldiers often come in with a big smile on their face, seemingly calm – but when they enter the corral there will be a “big shift of energy” and the horses will start moving around the corral. Ortiz said inevitably, the person will reveal that they had a fight that morning with a spouse or a child.

Mental health experts say that getting servicemen to talk – or somehow deal with their experiences and their emotions is critical – and the stakes could not be higher. The army is reporting record numbers of suicides among its ranks.

Compton was awarded a purple heart and both a bronze and silver star for his actions in Vietnam before he went on to command troops in Panama. Now retired, his devotion to military men and women continues in his work with veteran services in Ventura County.

Compton said he is an “absolute believer” in the H.O.P.E program. “Without this program we’d have more veterans in jail, we’d have more veterans in trouble,” he said.

He believes part of the challenge is that “combat is an adrenaline rush and then when you leave that it’s gone. So you have to find something else to take up that energy, and I’d rather have them on these horses” than doing more dangerous and destructive things.

Mack says the H.O.P.E. program would be most effective in the weeks immediately following a serviceman’s return stateside.

“When I first came home from war I was fantastically angry,” he said. “Angry at things that were beyond my control. I was angry when people would ask me what was it like over there? I’d say why don’t you know what it’s like?”

Those first weeks back, he said, are “intense,” and soldiers are especially prone to fighting with those “that care about you and you care about the most.”

Both Mack and Compton worry about the stigma associated with PTSD. The stigma, they say, can prevent a vet from seeking counseling for fear it will look bad when they’re trying to get work, particularly in law enforcement, a popular option for servicemen.

Yet, Sardonia says the need for this kind of therapy is only going to intensify over the coming months. Forty thousand troops are expected to return from Iraq by the end of the year. The Veterans Administration says 20 percent of those troops will suffer with some kind of post-traumatic stress, a number many believe is low.

When veterans show up at H.O.P.E. for Warriors, Sardonia will be ready for them – she’s doubling her herd of three horses to six. Lack of ability to pay is not an issue – Sardonia provides equine therapy free of charge for active duty military, veterans and their families.

She simply wants to "give back" and says this is her way of serving.

Of course, the funding needs to come from somewhere.

The land and the horses have been donated, but beyond that Sardonia depends on "angels" to make donations to keep the program going. She recognizes that these are difficult times for organizations like hers that depend on donations to survive.

Still, Sardonia is confident, "in my heart I know we will survive because I know that this works. It is a beautiful thing we are doing... and it works."

In the end, Mack said, the effectiveness of H.O.P.E. for Warriors is highly personal.

He encourages other returning combat vets to try it. It is important to recognize that no one returns from war the same, he said. “It absolutely changes you,” he said. “It matures you, and I feel that you have to come to terms with what it is in order to survive afterwards.”

For more information on free equine therapy programs, visit Reins of Hope and EAGALA.

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