“Up to 30% of veterans are affected by PTSD, more than 20 veterans take their own lives every day, and the veteran population accounts for 18% of all suicide deaths in the United States, according to the latest statistics.”
With increasing positive studies in equestrian therapy it is sparking interest in the effectiveness with those with PTSD. I had the privilege to meet with a Veteran that was soon to be working with a horse ranch in Wetumpka, Alabama at the beginning of this month.
This “Tell Your Story” blog will be featuring a female veteran that is currently learning to live with PTSD, Bipolar Type 1, and anxiety with the help of equestrian therapy.
Wendy joined the Marine Corps in 1993 right after high school and stepped on the yellow footprints June 26. She initially went in engineering, then placed in intel, but ultimately was placed as motor transport. She was in some of the first waves of female Marines tested for combat readiness. She was stationed at Parris Island for her time in the service. As a driver of the large vehicles in Corps, she witnessed accidents that have been forever burned into her memory, along with having a traumatic experience while at Parris Island.
As I arrived at the Rhapsody in Blue Training Center, I was met by Wendy’s daughter, Tori, who is one of the horse trainers at the facility. She was working on brushing and getting the beautiful horse ready to train. Wendy came in a little behind me and we started to talk about the beauty of the horses. Watching her daughter train, a horse creates a lot of anxiety for Wendy for the fact that her daughter is on a large animal and is not scared to back down from them.
While we sat down and watched Tori exercise the horse, I spoke with Wendy and Leigh, who is one of the owners of the stables. They are in the process of establishing a non-profit program that will be called The Stable Connection. Within the program they plan on using therapy techniques surrounding equestrian therapy. With this program they are looking to help at risk teens and veterans with PTSD. They plan on using a lot of ground work in order to do this. The programs they will offer are loosely modeled after three curricula Melanie Hughes where Leigh developed and successfully implemented in southwest Alabama when they lived there. Each of the three programs utilized unmounted activities with horses and activities in the horse environment.
Benefits of Veteran Horse Therapy
According to CRC Health, horseback riding or equine therapy has been successful in helping patients show marked improvements in the following areas:
- Emotional awareness
- Stress tolerance
- Impulse control
- Problem-solving skills
- Social responsibility
- Interpersonal relationships
- Post-traumatic stress
- Traumatic Brain Injury
Horses and veterans are similar in a few very important ways. Though the horse cannot speak, it is keen to understand a person's actions and body language. Both the veteran and the horse tend to be hypervigilant of their surroundings and potential dangers; both can use the actions and body language of others to determine situations.
The horse also can sense a veteran's pain, anxiety and fears, and is able to react to those feelings it is perceiving to steady the veteran's issues at that moment. I think, in a way, the horse can sense the sacrifices of the past and willingness to sacrifice for others in the veterans. The horses are willing to put their trust in such a creature, and a relationship between horse and veteran is built on that.
During this time, I could see the anxiety on Wendy’s face as her daughter was still riding the horse and training him. So, she asked if we could go sit at the table for a minute outside of the indoor arena. We began to discuss about the experiences she had within the military and how it has affected her. Wendy had a miscarriage while being at Paris Island and during this time she was placed in the barracks due to a detail. She was 10 weeks at the time when this occurred, and she was made to come into the hospital to have a D&C. Her command made her come into work within 24/48 hours after when she was suppose to be on quarters. During her shift she began to hemorrhage due to the horrible job the surgeon did with her D&C. She was left with 80% scaring of her uterus and thought she would never be able to have children after this.
After discussing this, we took a break to go down to the lower barn while her daughter was feeding the horses and so I could see the Mares. With the sun going down soon we decided to just chat a little more about the stables and I learned more about horses.
We then met up again a few days later to finish talking. After watching Tori exercise the horse we sat back down at the table. Wendy began to tell me how she witnessed two accidents within the motor pool. Unfortunately, there was accident that had two men get crushed between to vehicles that left them with major injuries. Then the other accident the individual was in her vehicle and was ran over by a large military vehicle and did not survive. With this she to this day, still remembers the smell of the diesel fuel burning. I asked where there certain types of triggers now that cause her to have flash backs. Wendy said that anything red, white, wrecks, and burning diesel fuel.
She was medically discharged from the military due to her mental health status because with the medication she was on due to them saying it was unsafe for her to operate military vehicles. She has been in counseling for many years and has been a part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral therapy) to help with her Bipolar type 1 and anxiety. It wasn’t until the past few years that they found she also was suffering from PTSD. She now is a part of CPT (cognitive process therapy), which is the process part instead of the behavioral aspect. It provides the challenging questions that is needed to ask yourself when you are in a situation and when to take the coping skills you have learn with cognitive behavioral therapy and apply them. She follows an APP that was put out by the VA that helps continue her progress with CPT. The link to the app will be placed below in "Info & Contact".
Here is an example of the challenge question for CPT.
At the end of us talking, I noticed the tattoo on her wrist and asked what it stood for. Wendy and her wife, Molly, have been together for over 20 years and they have a daughter Tori. The tattoo on her wrist represents their family crest. Wendy is much like the moon, symbol of the ever changing, yet recurring cycle of life. Molly is like the sun, the source of energy and life. Tori is the star because she will go on to make her own family.
There are many things and situations that can cause triggers for many, but when working with a horse it creates a since of trust with the animals. Just while we were talking there was many loud sudden sounds and the need to have respect for a horse. There is also a calming nature to learning ground techniques and more. I truly feel that what this ranch is trying to accomplish with starting The Stable Connection to help those with PTSD and at-risk teens is much needed.
Info & Contacts:
Rhapsody in Blue Website: https://www.winningarabians.com/
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline : 1-800-273-8255