In Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, horses are used as tools for military veterans to gain self-understanding and emotional growth.  It recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species.  In most cases, the horses are not ridden, and usually are not tethered in the arena, but allowed to roam free.  Exercises can be as simple as giving the client a halter, and letting them figure out how to approach the horse and put it on. 
Why Horses? 
According to Dr. Laurie Sullivan-Sakeada, a Utah based Clinical Psychologist and leading practitioner of EAP, horses are prey animals, and like those who have been to war, rely on their heightened senses for survival.  They react to and mirror the emotions of visitors directly, without words.  Horses respond negatively to negative emotions.  They respond positively to positive emotions.  And they have no ulterior motives. 
“They are just there,” says Sakeada, “providing non-verbal feedback.”  The horses are therapeutic and interactive tools that speed up the therapy process substantially.  Dr. Sakeada notes that one session of EAP in the barn is equal to five sessions “on the couch.”  
1,200 Pounds of Lie Detector
Jennie Hegeman, an equine rehabilitation specialist as well as a professional horse trainer is another proponent of EAP for PTSD.  She is creator of The Hegeman Method, a patented, cross-discipline equine bio-kinetic training and rehabilitation method based on the muscle structure and bio- mechanics of the horse.  She has worked with Dr. Sakeada in treating children with physical, emotional and mental disabilities at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah.  
Ms. Hegeman refers to horses as “1,200 pounds of lie detector.”   Her role is to interpret the horse’s body language, such as flicking ears, wide eyes, or a dropped shoulder that will provide feedback for the therapist and the veteran.  Horses also possess a variety of “herd dynamics” such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another and grazing together.  In the process of describing the interactions between horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.
Preliminary Studies Validate EAP for PTSD
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD has garnered the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who has provided grants for practitioners to run equine assisted therapy groups with returning troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.   Preliminary results are favorable, suggesting statistically significant rates of change. 
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) also evaluated treatment of members of the Georgia National Guard where deployments averaged two years or more.  The study revealed that 100 percent of soldiers who completed therapy had dramatically reduced stress levels.
For more information about Equine Assisted Therapy for PTSD, you can visit the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) website.  To hear Dr. Laurie Sullivan-Sakeada and Jennie Hegeman discuss their experience, go to their site and click on “Equine Assisted Psychotherapy” in the show archive section.  For additional information on PTSD, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD website.