Veterans Build Resilience Through Equine-Assisted Therapy

About 20 veterans a day die from suicide, according to a Veterans Affairs Department analysis released in 2016. Multiple programs have begun to provide the nation’s veterans with the help they need.

One such program is based at the Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center here. The center provides services to veterans through the TRICARE insurance program, and it also helps veterans’ families.

“We serve veterans, [and] we serve children with various diagnoses or needs,” said Sarah Price, a mental health counselor for equine-assisted psychotherapy. “Some diagnoses include anxiety disorder. Some adults might have bipolar disorders or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It really just depends. There are lots of different needs and symptoms that EAP can address and be beneficial for.”

The riding center offers a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International program to assist its clients.

“I have post-traumatic stress disorder] and I have bipolar disorder, said Carolyn Burke, a Navy veteran. “For me, they’ve helped me through all of those, each one individually. And the social anxiety — just dealing with people in general — you can learn to do that here.”

Understanding the Struggle

Experienced veteran staff members understand what their military and prior-military clients are going through.

“I was active duty Navy for six years,” said Adam Morrison, an equine specialist in mental health and learning at the center. “I was in operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Sweep. Now I’m a student with Arizona State, [going through] their social work program for my master’s, and the population that I wanted to work with was veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the growing need for combat trauma. That, and I never have a bad day when I’m out around the horses, so I thought this would be a perfect mix.”

Morrison tells potential clients who may be experiencing PTSD symptoms that this program is not your typical in-office therapy.

Therapy Teams

“We’re able to create what I call a therapy team — an equine specialist instructor, a therapist, the client and a horse — and it has a lot of advantages,” Morrison said. “I think it feels more free-flowing. There’s not that rigid office setting. And the horse is highly reflective of the client’s emotions and what they’re feeling.”

Amy May, a PATH-certified therapeutic riding instructor and equine specialist in mental health and learning, said she believes the program has affected local veterans most by giving them a chance just to be present with the horse.

“I’ve had quite a few of them tell me that this is the first time in years that they haven’t been thinking about their anxiety or their experiences that are always kind of haunting them,” May said. “So it’s a moment for them to relax and to breathe and be with the horse — sometimes challenged by the horse — and really build that bond.”

The program reaches a wide range of veterans: active duty, National Guard, reservists and retired military. The center has even started offering a free course to families, with a few requirements: the family must have TRICARE coverage, no more than four members can participate, and the youngest participant must be at least age 7.