Horses Helped These Vets Treat Their PTSD
Every day in the United States, approximately 20 veterans kill themselves.
Troy Huggard, 40, woke up in his Orlando, Florida, apartment and decided to put on his white Navy uniform, put a gun in his mouth, and end his life. He had friends who had recently done just that. His own mother had done it. But he looked in the mirror and saw his hair was longer than usual and his patchy beard was growing in, a far cry from his clean-cut military days.
Huggard put his plans on hold and went to a barber shop. As he waited his turn, he overheard a barber talking to a customer about a program in Saratoga Springs, New York—some 1,200 miles away—for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Without a phone or a pen to jot the information down, he jumped into his car and headed home to his laptop. He didn’t get a haircut that day.
That conversation—one he wasn’t even part of—completely changed the trajectory for Huggard, who’s now 46. He found the Saratoga WarHorse website and called Bob Nevins, the program’s director. Two weeks later, Huggard was in Saratoga Springs. “If I didn’t want to cut my hair that morning, I would be dead, period,” he says.
Every day in the United States, approximately 20 veterans kill themselves, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Suicide risk may be higher in those who suffer from PTSD due to symptoms of intrusive memories and poor impulse control. Between 11 to 20 percent of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and 12 percent who served in the Gulf War have PTSD.
Therapists, nonprofits, and the VA have been working to treat PTSD in different ways. One treatment that’s gaining popularity is equine therapy, which uses the interaction between horses and humans to help different people, from children with autism to veterans with PTSD. Most equine therapy programs for veterans anecdotally report positive results, but there are no uniform guidelines and few studies show the success rates. Saratoga WarHorse uses interaction with horses to address the physiological basis of PTSD rather than focusing solely on the mental ones, Nevins says. More than 850 veterans have graduated from the program since it opened in 2011.
When military recruits go through basic training, they are told that they are more likely to kill themselves after their time in the military is over than they are to be killed in combat. Nevins, a Vietnam veteran himself, says they’re right. He flew helicopters in Vietnam in the ‘70s, and became an airline captain when he returned to civilian life. He repeatedly heard about veteran suicides in the late 2000s and wondered why this destructive pattern had not yet changed.
His program is free for veterans. It’s funded through the organization’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation (“People started giving me money because they were seeing the kind of results that I was getting,” he says) and takes place over three days, typically featuring five to seven veterans. The staff—many of whom have formal equine training backgrounds—teaches them how to communicate with horses using visual, breathing, and movement cues.
Nevins doesn’t even ask participants about the specifics of their trauma. “I don’t care whether your buddy died in your arms in the jungle in Vietnam, you were sexually assaulted at your duty station, or you got blown up in a Humvee in Iraq—trauma is trauma,” he tells participants. He knows something happened that caused an internal circuit breaker to pop, leaving them in permanent survival mode. He wants to address that.
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During Huggard’s 11 years in the military, he had two traumatic brain injuries, nerve damage, and broken bones. When he came out of the service in 2000, he felt lost. “When I left base that first day, I was like, ‘Who do I let know I’m going? Where do I need to be in the morning?’” he recalls. But shortly after his time in the Navy ended, Huggard landed a high-paying job as an IT professional and his life seemed to take off—everybody went to his place to watch fights on TV, to drink his beer, and party on his dime.
One by one, though, his friends disappeared. Huggard then married someone who wasn’t right for him. He pushed his loved ones away. “I hurt for years,” he says. “I’ve tried concoctions of drugs,” he says, “I’ve gained weight. I’ve lost weight. I’ve slept for days. I’ve been awake for days.” It was then, when he’d almost been pushed to his edge, that he started working with Nevins.
At the program, each veteran is paired with a horse and leads it into a round pen—an enclosed circle, 50 feet in diameter with an animal up to six times their size. There’s one way in and one way out. “You feel like Clark Kent in a phone booth,” Huggard says. It was there that Huggard that many veterans with PTSD like himself are stuck in fight or flight mode—just like the retired racehorses the program uses.
The horse is released from its harness and starts running around the pen, confused, and scared—emotions that may bubble up for the veteran as well. The animal runs along the outer ring of the pen while the veteran paces in the center. The horse begins to twitch its ear, as though it is listening, then slows its movements. The veteran counters the horse’s movement, getting in the animal’s way just enough to make it change its direction. They realize if they work together, they can get out of the pen. When the horse knows it can trust him or her, it walk over to meet the veteran. “It’s like one moment of trust. In my heart I call it the shazam moment,” Huggard says. The moment of trust causes a shift within the veteran.
When they finally get out, the horse’s eyes often aren’t as wide as before and its head is in a relaxed position. Sometimes the veteran has an instant emotional release. “I can’t tell you how many of them are just sobbing on my shoulder,” Nevins says. For some veterans, relief may take weeks; some haven’t cried in 20 years.
Equine therapy can serve as an alternative to talk therapy because horses can’t pass judgement the way humans do. Therapists aren’t for everybody, says Rob Mennell, the vice president of the board of directors for SPIRIT Open Equestrian Program in Herndon, Virginia. Mennell spent time in the infantry, and feels as though some counselors don’t seem sincere. “It’s like there is an ulterior motive for them to be in that room,” he explains. “I’m deconstructing every question they’re asking me and figuring out how I should respond.” Mennell says more research on equine therapy for veterans is needed to formalize the knowledge and share some of the best practices from across organizations.
But Nevins wants to differentiate Saratoga WarHorse from other organizations. He feels strongly about not running what would be considered a mental health program—which is why he differentiates WarHorse from, say, traditional counseling—because he knows that many veterans struggle with even the word 'therapy.' This is his way of presenting his program as an alternative to talk therapy.
Nevins is, however, interested in the science of his program, so he sent videos of the interventions to Stephen Porges, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina who developed the polyvagal theory in 1994 (the theory explains how changes in the autonomic nervous system help people survive moments of trauma). Many people with PTSD are frustrated with themselves, Porges says, but the theory shifts the framing from damaged to heroic.
Porges looked for shifts in behavior in the footage from Saratoga WarHorse and noticed changes in facial expressions and posture of the veterans after they interacted with the horses. The interaction provides triggers of safety and trust that allow the veteran’s autonomic nervous system to leave the state of defense. “They have a major emotional reaction and they cry and start to become more available to connecting with others,” Porges says. “When they are out of the state of defense, [these veterans] can be much more engaging and available and people can develop relationships again.”
After completing the program, many veterans go back to college and establish new relationships. Huggard came to Saratoga at a time in his life when he was sleeping with a weapon. After going through the program, he got a divorce and moved from Florida to upstate New York to be closer to the community that saved his life. He helps the organization now by cooking meals and and running errands. Huggard also recently graduated from culinary school and works as a chef.
He still sees a doctor and takes medications. He talks to a counselor as part of his disability with the VA. “I’m a disabled veteran and that’s okay. It used to be a little bit embarrassing but it’s not anymore,” he says. “Sometimes I struggle, but I have friends around me now. WarHorse—I really don’t know how to explain it—it just gave me my life back.”
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