Horses and Heroes: Bruce Bennett was an eighteen-year-old Marine when he went to Vietnam in 1967. When his initial assignment was changed from tank duty to mortar man, he quickly found himself on the front lines, stationed near Marble Mountain north of Danang. His mobile unit had been dispatched to guard Highway 1, the north/south route used by the North Vietnamese to transport supplies to guerrillas. A few months later his unit went on a different patrol, to look for guerrillas and their storage units hidden in dense brush and foliage. When the unit set up their new encampment, curious children from a nearby village appeared at its perimeter. The soldiers threw them candy bars and cans of peanut butter, and c ration can openers. After making camp, the soldiers forayed out into the nearby jungle. When they returned that evening, they walked into a nightmare. The children had been carefully scouting the camp as the soldiers tossed them treats. They had watched the soldiers setting up, and pinpointed where all the different personnel would be. The men of the village then planted grenades and other explosives while the soldiers were away. When the Marines reentered the camp, Bruce witnessed the horror of his comrades’ bodies flying everywhere in the explosions, only narrowly escaping death himself. (Because the North Vietnamese continually threatened the South Vietnamese–and would brutally kill them without ceremony–the South Vietnamese, including the children, were forced to do their bidding.)
Despite the shocking experience, the surviving Marines shouldered on. Four months later, Bruce’s back would be shattered by the concussive force of an incoming mortar exploding in a tree above his foxhole. Today, nearly fifty years later, whenever he dines in a restaurant, Bruce will sit with his back to the wall, with a clear sight line to the entrance door. While at Disneyland once with family, he was unable to leave the park before the nightly fireworks began. Knowing what was coming, he found a small retaining wall beside a hedge and crawled between, holding himself in a fetal position until the sounds subsided.
WHen residual back pain and his overwhelming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms seemed insurmountable, his wife heard of an equine therapy program and urged him to try it. On his second day, his spirits low, he walked into a stall to halter a mare named Calypso. Bruce had ridden horses in his youth and knew to position himself where Calypso could see him approaching. With her head and neck, the mare gently drew Bruce to her, holding him close for what felt like a deliberate embrace. When he held the halter open for her, she dipped her nose in without pause. Her deep and silent acceptance of Bruce and her genuine physical gestures towards him altered his trajectory in that moment. That day, a different level of healing began for him. (Bruce ended up buying Calypso!)
According to a Rand Corporation study released in 2008, 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans may have experienced a head injury, from a mild concussion to traumatic brain injury. 300,000 of these veterans–one in four–were found to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Today, that number is significantly higher. PTSD is as old as war itself; in years past it has been referred to as “shell shock”, “battle fatigue,” and “soldier’s heart.” It is a significant factor in the high rate of suicide among our servicemen and women. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that from 1999 to 2010, roughly 22 veterans were committing suicide per day, one every 65 minutes. Some sources consider this a conservative estimate. (Female veterans were killing themselves at the same rate as male veterans, unlike civilian statistics where fewer women than men take their own lives.) Regardless of one’s political penchant or personal views, it is evident that more must be done to diminish this loss of life, and to improve the quality of veterans lives post-deployment. Horses are coming to the rescue.
Traditionally, horses have been employed to help the physically disabled—those who have lost limbs, or the use of them–regain balance, strength, mobility and confidence. But recently, equine assisted therapy has been found to be dramatically useful in healing PTSD, and its subsequent effects as well.
To understand a horse’s ability to mitigate and alleviate the symptoms of those suffering from PTSD, it is helpful to first take a closer look at just what PTSD is, and how it may develop. Frank Ochberg, a professor of psychiatry and trauma specialist at Michigan State University suggests PTSD is “a certain kind of shattering experience that changes the way our memory system works.” Physically, the intense and overwhelming trauma alters the physiology of the brain. But how might this happen?
Simplified, and in layman’s terms, many of us are familiar with the “fight or flight response,” by animals or humans when presented with real or perceived danger. Author Peter A. Levine, who with Ann Frederick wrote the book, Waking The Tiger, Healing Trauma, describes a third instinctual reaction, less often discussed “the immobility or freezing response.” He explains, “The efficacy of the freezing response is less apparent, yet equally important as a survival mechanism.” In other words, when fight or flight proves impossible, wild animals are adept at “playing possum.” Animals regularly go back and forth from hyper-vigilance to a relaxed state, twitching or trembling as they do so to release the energy that might otherwise be constricted within the nervous system. The case is not always so with humans. It is thought that after a traumatic event, our powerful and evolved neo-cortex may override and shut down our gentler, instinctual restorative impulses—impulses that are necessary for completion of the process that serves to reinstate our biological and chemical equilibrium. Unneeded energy, along with a cascade of chemical reactions initially summoned for fight or flight (and meant to be discharged and quieted when the threat no longer exists) are instead retained in the body. Over time, the bound energy and imprinted responses, if not released, may result in a multitude of both chronic and triggered symptoms; lack of trust, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, anger, terror, and panic among them.
Are Horses Exempt from PTSD?
Expert horseman Tim Hayes, who penned the recently published book RIDING HOME – The Power of Horses to Heal, discusses the phenomenon of PTSD, and the possibility it is an exclusively a human condition, not exhibited by other species or evident elsewhere in nature. Citing trauma research by Dr. Levine, Hayes says “As long as a horse can either use his adrenaline-fueled energy for fight or flight, or discharge it with some form of somatic release such as physically shaking when he exits from the freeze response, he [the horse] can experience emotionally traumatic situations, survive, and recover without acquiring PTSD.”
If a horse has a traumatic experience in a domestic situation, say with an abusive trainer, Hayes continues, “he may continue to have an emotionally traumatic response around the trainer or some other humans, but he will otherwise be able to function normally without such human PTSD symptoms as depression, panic attacks, or suicidal ideation.” According to Hayes, it is man’s “inability to navigate the freeze response” that causes “the “adrenaline-fueled energy of the emotionally traumatic experience of the soldier to become somatically and indefinitely frozen, only to be triggered later (‘post’-) by any stimulus that in some way replicates the original event.”
Horses are prey animals, born with the fear that predators, including humans, might eat them. In order to survive over millennia, they have learned to live in the moment, highly alert, aware and in tune with all that surrounds them. Gaining a horse’s acceptance and friendship requires effort on our part. Horses do not care what we may have done in the past. Horses accept us unconditionally, reacting only to our behavior in the present moment. Hayes explains, “by offering unconditional love, trust and respect, the horse will relate to that person with the same three characteristics.” At the same time, what we might hide from other people can be seen and felt by a horse, without our ever having to say a word. Jennie Hegeman, Equine rehabilitation specialist and professional horse trainer refers to horses “as 1,200 pounds of lie detector.” We cannot be anything other than our authentic selves with horses. Horses meet us where we are, now. In terms of PTSD, Mary Ann Evans, an equine specialist and psychotherapist, says developing a connection with a horse is “a visceral, somatic experience that affects all levels of the brain. Horses are empathic and wise, with a deep and reflective presence.” (Evans enrolled in her own equine therapy program after a mountain lion spooked her horse, resulting in a serious fall and subsequent PTSD symptoms related to the incident.)
Sergeant Devon Sachey was just a year old when she first sat on a horse’s back. Her father, a world-renowned coach and clinician, was on the U.S. World Championship Eventing Team that won a gold medal in 1974. Horses were the love and focus of Sachey’s life–until she found the ROTC program at school whose discipline and camaraderie immediately captivated her. She joined the Marines at seventeen with her parent’s hesitant signatures, and became one of only a handful of women (at that time) to hold the position of flight mechanic for the KC-130 cargo transport aerial refueler. From 2003 until 2008, Sachey thrived on a “deep sense of service both to her fellow Marines and to something greater than us, a driving force for our camaraderie.” But the constant need to prove herself as equal to the men weighed upon her, and she opted not to re-enlist. The transition to civilian life left her, in her own words, “unmoored.” She had lost her community and “uncommon valor was no longer a common virtue.” Still adrift in 2013, she began volunteering at Hearts Therapeutic, an equestrian center in Santa Barbara that had a program for veterans. Immediately, she says, “I knew it was what I wanted to do.” Her expertise with horses, combined with the social responsibility and service were a perfect match. And Devon’s experience as a Marine was invaluable in dealing with her fellow veterans. She knew how to be with them, to talk to them. She discovered (as many have in the last several years) that horses could be enormously helpful to those suffering from PTSD. Today, Sachey is Program Director of Hearts Therapeutic and its Operation Unbridled Freedom Program, which collaborates with Reins of H.O.P.E. in Ojai, California to offer Equine Assisted Activities Therapy (EAAT) and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). They are healing veterans one horse at a time. Bruce Bennet, the gentleman whose story opened this article, is a founding member. To this day, he credits equine therapy and the love of a horse instrumental in his recovery.
Today there are a multitude of resources for equine therapy for veterans all over the United States, including the Veterans Health Association, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.). Numerous other creative programs offer a variety of approaches from equine wilderness treks (perfectly suited to a veterans training and familiarity) to miniature horses visiting hospitalized and home bound veterans. While other therapeutic modalities continue to be utilized for PTSD and veterans, it is clear that horses provide something unique—and often immediate—that gets to the heart of the matter: heroes helping heroes.
Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International www.pathintl.org
Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association www.eagala.org
Operation We Are Here www.operationwearehere.com
Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center www.heartsriding.org
Riding Home-The Power of Horses to Heal www.ridinghome.com
Reins of H.O.P.E Human Opportunity Partnering with Equines www.reinsofhopevc.org
Heroes and Horses, Inc. www.heroesandhorses.com