Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects many survivors of trauma. With proper care, PTSD usually diminishes over time, but for some people, especially combat veterans, it can be severe and persistent, and very hard to manage. In this article from last March, Nancy Bartley, writing in the Seattle Times, explains how equine therapy is helping veterans reduce the long-term emotional and physiological effects of trauma—in particular, how a white Frederiksborg gelding named Fred brought Staff Sgt. Aaron Heliker back from the brink of suicide:
The program was just what Heliker needed. Nothing else had worked, he said, not treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., not therapy at a clinic in Texas, not the lockdown PTSD treatment facility in Oregon — not even his beloved service dog, Chopper, his companion to help with anxiety.
Fred’s ability to mirror Heliker’s own emotional state, requiring him to calm himself in order to do as little as brush Fred, has made it possible for Heliker to get used to staying in control.
Not long after meeting Fred last June, Heliker canceled his plans to die, and over the course of nine months went from taking 42 pills a day to four.
I’ve spent a lot of time around horses, and even more time dealing with chronic anxiety, so I was particularly struck by the comments of Debbi Fisher, who runs the Rainier Therapeutic Riding program. “Horses are ideal partners for traumatized service members because ‘they’re kindred spirits,’ Fisher said, and have similar fight-or-flight reactions to perceived threats.” A horse can embody the traumatized human limbic system, writ large. Engaging with a horse, focusing on soothing and calming it, requires a person to project calmness. The horse becomes, in effect, a giant-sized biofeedback mechanism, providing immediate rewards whenever its human companion manages to relax.
Plus they have those adorable soft noses.