Horses are proving again and again through countless examples that they are an effective treatment for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder otherwise known as PTSD. Horse therapy for treating PTSD can produce profound and long-lasting benefits to participants and does so in such a way that it even becomes apparent outwardly that positive changes are taking place. This is my story about how I had the opportunity and privilege to help treat a Vet suffering from PTSD through equine therapy.
He Showed Up Out of Nowhere!
To get a feel for this story you need to know the setting. I was in the heyday of my training years in remote Western Colorado. I had hung my training shingle out a few years prior and at this point I had a barn full of horses to train daily, mostly colts for area ranchers and sometimes a colt or two from the neighboring city from an outfit that competed nationally in the NRHA.
So one morning I’m in the training barn saddling colts for the morning work and I had my head down working and stood up to head back to the tack room and as I turned to go I about ran into this guy that had wandered into the barn and walked right up behind me. Needless to say I about jumped out of my boots, visitors were rare as my place was way out in the country and when folks did visit they usually called ahead to make sure I was going to be there so they didn’t make the trip for nothing.
“Hi I’m Jerry” he blurted out. He was a big guy, not sure how tall but I’m six feet tall and I was looking up at him! The expression on his face was unsettling, looking into his eyes I thought this guy looks tormented or angry. I couldn’t place the expression, all I know is it made me uncomfortable. There was an awkward silence as we stood there as if he was struggling with what to say next so I broke the silence and said, “Howdy Jerry, what can I do for you?” He just stared at me for what seemed an eternity and then again he blurted loudly, “I have a horse!”
I thought, okay we’re getting somewhere he has a horse so he’s not here to kill me that’s a relief!
Jerry Has a Horse!
Our conversation continued in fits and starts, Jerry seemed to blurt out everything he had to say in short, sharp and very loud sentences. To be honest I thought there was something seriously wrong with him and I had no idea how true that thought was or of the journey Jerry and I were about to embark on.
Eventually I was able to get to the bottom of Jerry’s visit. He had bought himself a big Sorrel gelding and the folks he bought him from dropped him off at Jerry’s remote outpost where he lived like a hermit hiding from the rest of the world. The most frustrating thing to Jerry was that they didn’t leave him the instruction manual and he had no idea what to do with his gelding.
He asked if I would give him lessons and teach him how to ride if he paid me and of course I told him I’d give it a shot if he would give it his all. He was ecstatic and then quickly asked me when I would be by to pick up his horse, you see Jerry didn’t have a truck or a trailer, but he had a horse!
The Journey Begins – My Introduction to PTSD
Just so you know, I myself am a veteran and when I enlisted many of my staff NCO’s and senior officers were Vietnam Veterans so I had been exposed to PTSD in that some of them suffered from it and I witnessed its effects even though I was too young to truly understand what was going on exactly. That being said it had been many years since my time in the Marine Corps and I had long forgotten anything I may have thought I knew about PTSD.
It wasn’t long before Jerry and I began our journey into the unknown, for him the unknown concerning horsemanship and for me the unknown of working with someone that suffered from a very acute case of PTSD. There are far too many experiences we shared over the next couple of summers together to share with you in this short article so I will try to condense it down and paint a picture of how it developed.
Jerry’s form of PTSD led him to be very agitated most of the time, it was as if he had an itch he couldn’t scratch and that he couldn’t even explain to anyone else what the itch was so they could scratch it for him. He was also very angry and took offense very easy, even when it wasn’t intended. Even though his wounds on the outside had long since healed decades ago his inside wounds were still fresh as if they had just occurred. I learned very quickly what his triggers were and I had to adapt my teaching style if I was going to help him.
It was a painstaking process for both of us, he had to learn how to take direction and not get offended in order to progress and I learned a whole other level of patience. In a few lessons I had Jerry riding his gelding in the round pen, it was a heart wrenching day for both of us, not in a bad way, but I saw Jerry smile that day for the first time.
I had him dismount and stand in the center of the round pen with his horse for a few minutes as a matter of routine, as he stood there with his back to me I could tell he was emotional and then I could hear him sobbing uncontrollably. It was as if his horse sensed something extraordinary was going on because he seemed to soften and lowered his head and leaned it against Jerry’s hip as he wept.
I didn’t know what to do so I slowly walked outside and left them alone, Jerry eventually appeared and he came up to me an apologized for getting emotional and I told him not to give it a second thought, that horses often have that effect on folks and he went on to tell me that was the first time he had smiled in many, many years and he said it felt great and he wanted more of that!
As time passed Jerry did smile more, in fact he went through an amazing transformation! One day we were talking after a ride and I asked him why he thought horses were helping him so much when everything else he had tried to treat his PTSD had failed up to that point and this is some of what he told me. He explained that first and foremost his horse asks nothing of him but instead gives his all freely.
He also said that to him his horse is the most honest creature he had ever interacted with, no hidden agenda, good or bad it is what it is and he could handle that because it was true. Jerry said that his horse had taught him patience, give and take, how to ask instead of demand, and most importantly how to live in the moment again, in the present and not in the past.
The Gift That Kept Giving
One day when Jerry showed up for his lesson he had a couple friends with him. Mind you, by this time Jerry was riding pretty well and he and his horse had definitely come to an understanding and were becoming a great team. He introduced me to his buddies and told me they were also Vietnam Vets from his PTSD support group that he attends at the VA hospital.
In conversation, they told me they were compelled to come see what Jerry was up to because he had changed so much in the last several months that they were blown away at the transformation. One of the guys confided in me that Jerry had been a real problem in the past at the meetings they attended, he would have outbursts of anger and generally scared the rest of the support group because they felt he was a loose cannon that could blow at any time.
They said that he had become a positive influence to the group now and was so kind and patient that they were in awe. For a while these guys would come and sit and watch Jerry’s lessons and they said just the environment, and being able to touch the horses there made them feel better and gave them a sense of peace.
A Life Changing Experience
As with everything in life seasons change and eventually the lessons ended and Jerry went on to enjoy his relationship with his equine partner who he credited for saving his life. I was changed too by the experience, I got to peer inside of the mental anguish that can accompany PTSD and came to understand its elusive nature in treatment, all I can say is that the relationship building Jerry had with his horse was profound and lasting.
There are some amazing people out there doing amazing things with horses and those that suffer from PTSD. I encourage you to look them up online and learn about the work they are doing. If you suffer from PTSD and think this kind of therapy would be a good fit for you I would especially encourage you to reach out and get involved, you won’t regret it!
Please leave your questions and comments here if you would like to share your own experience, it may encourage others who are suffering. I will leave some links below to programs and information about equine therapy for PTSD, you can copy and paste them into your browser.