Veterans and their families were exposed to an unorthodox, but effective, therapy session at the Equine Therapy for Veterans event at Blue Star Ranch.
Equine therapy is the use of horses in a 10-week program to help its patients develop boundaries, engage in problem-solving, and provide animal-bonding with the horses themselves. The recent event was a joint effort between the Santa Clarita Veteran Services Collaborative and Blue Star Ranch.
Katie Ryan, a marriage and family therapist who was the mental health specialist for the event, said the VSC first began doing equine therapy for veterans eight years ago and that over time, she’s seen it have a tremendous positive affect on those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues.
“I believe that it affects them in a really positive way,” said Ryan. “Because over time, over eight to 10 sessions, they develop a relationship with these animals and they start to become more comfortable around the 1,000-pound animal. So therefore, they transfer that into their lives.”
Ryan said they transfer this into their lives in a few ways. One is by introducing the concept that if patients can be comfortable with such a large, and sometimes unpredictable, animal then it can give them the confidence to be in large crowds, which can be difficult for some people with PTSD.
Another way is to create a “safe place” in their heads, in this case the serene and calming environment of Blue Star Ranch, to go to in moments of high anxiety.
“I scale their anxiety when they come in and if they have high anxiety, by the end they’re like ‘ahh,’” said Ryan. “Getting outdoors and it’s beautiful and you take deep breaths and we’ll keep them safe, if anything is a little wonky with the horses.”
Sometimes things did get a little wonky with the horses, but Ryan said this was a part of the program. A sweet, but sometimes disrespectful of boundaries, horse nicknamed “Jack the Nipper” would occasionally try to take a small chomp at the patients. Ryan said Jack is there to help patients set and then enforce boundaries.
“He’s our boundary horse, because I’ve seen Jack try to take a chomp on somebody and they’re not doing anything,” said Ryan. “It’s like, ‘are you going to set a boundary?’ So yes, they do an exercise [where] they decide: OK, this is a representation of my world, and my life and my timeline and defining moments. And then they bring the horse into it…I believe everybody has their own solutions. But if they can just master it, and start to feel more comfortable within themselves, it makes a difference.”
Allen Hartman, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from 1961 to 1966, said that coming out to the ranch helped him cope with what he said was, “a lot of the stuff from Vietnam.” Hartman described the bonding and mutual understanding between him and the horses as something he didn’t expect.
Hartman, initially deterred by Jack’s incessant nipping, developed a bond with one of the ponies, Mini Cooper, after a few sessions.
“I can feel that he had a sense of how I felt at times. You know, If I had a bad mood or whatever. He kind of comes close and stuff like that if I [was] really angry and then he stayed away,” said Hartman. It’s kind of a surprise to me because I didn’t really think animals really communicated. But after five sessions… I was looking at him, like he’s actually trying to communicate with me… that was kind of a good thing.”
Nancy Zhe, co-founder and executive director of Blue Star Ranch, said that success in the program is quantifiable and that they have the numbers to prove back up what patients have said about the program.
Zhe said the patients are charted in six different categories: Anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, coping skills, and communication skills. Patients score themselves in these categories, with anger and anxiety usually ranking among the highest.
“Our stats show that we have a 35 to 50% reduction in those categories in just 10 weeks,” said Zhe. “Nobody else can beat that record. Nobody else can even do it.”
Jeffery Stabile, Vietnam veteran and representative of the Veteran’s Services Collaborative, said the entire experience usually has a lasting effect on those that participate. “With the veterans and a lot of veterans apparently, once they go through the program, they come back just to visit with the horses just to have some peace time,” said Stabile.