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Canada exploring new uses of horse-related therapy for veterans

Horses are increasingly used as therapy animals for wounded veterans.

Thanks to their empathetic abilities and general intelligence, horses have made excellent therapy animals. Whether working alongside the elderly, disabled children or those coping with traumatic injuries, these animals continually play a part in the healing process of people the world over. In recent years, therapeutic clients have begun to include veterans, as these soldiers can gain a sense of purpose and companionship as they reintegrate back into the world. Though horse-centric therapies are common in the U.S., many similar programs are still developing across Canada. As originally reported by CTV News, the government is now taking further steps to determine how horses might assist veterans in overcoming stress-induced mental injuries.

Treating those wounded warriors 
Veterans Affairs Canada is launching two brand new studies that will offer the government insight into the long-term benefits of equine-related psychotherapy. The first component gives $250,000 to the Canadian Institute of Military and Veteran Health Research for a study called “Equine Assisted Intervention.” Meanwhile, the nonprofit group Can Praxis is receiving $25,000 to continue development of an equine therapy pilot program. In a statement, Erin O’Toole, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, said the government is hoping to make headway in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment experienced by many soldiers returning home from service.

“The Government of Canada is committed to exploring treatment and therapy options for veterans with operational stress injuries like PTSD,” he said. “Research studies like these help us understand the treatment better to determine when and where equine therapy could be used as part of a treatment regime for a veteran. This is part of our government’s major focus on mental health treatments and supports, including the national network of operational stress injury clinics to support veterans and their families.”

In its program, Can Praxis is using horses to help soldiers learn how to interact with their friends and families. The horses serve as a kind of stand-in and a visual aid as the veterans learn about everything from conflict management to improving overall communication. Speaking to Global News, Can Praxis co-founder Steve Critchley said that horses can demonstrate to veterans how to maintain proper emotional connections.

“With a horse, if you come on too strong and aggressive, it will take off,” he said. “We show them through exercises, that if they approach things differently the horse will come back, because the horse will believe that [they’re] worthwhile to trust and respect.”

Is equine therapy effective for veterans?
According to the Horses & Humans Research Foundation, there are over 30 VA medical centers in the U.S. already using some form of equine-related therapy. Dr. Rusty Reynolds runs the Children, Horses and Adults in Partnership program in Wyoming. He told the HHRF that since its inception, CHAPS has exceeded the expectations of parents, therapists and hospital officials alike. Not only were the symptoms of PTSD – which include fatigue, depression and irritability – reduced in many veterans, but the overall rate of improvement surprised many.

Other outfits have found similar results. A 2012 study published in the journal Rehabilitation Nursing examined how therapeutic riding might prove effective for a large population of veterans. That included not only those coping with PTSD, but also traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord damage and amputations. The study found that each group benefited from equine therapy, noting increases in their overall level of self esteem. Those with physical conditions even reported improvement in their sense of balance and muscle strength.

Though they looked at a much wider population of nonveterans, one group of researchers found that horses greatly diminished patients’ psychological distress. In a study published in the journal Society & Animals, patients reported fewer feelings of guilt and resentment while experiencing an increase in their overall independence and self awareness. They also said they felt more capable of building effective support networks between one another. However, the study did note that more research would have to be conducted, as many equine programs share the same components as other therapeutic approaches.

A healthy horse is a helpful horse
Equine therapy is, effectively, an experiential method, meaning that veterans have to get up close and personal with the horses. To that end, horses need to be at their physical best in order to provide the support necessary in the healing process. Apple-A-Day™ can help balance a horse’s electrolytes, leading to hours of activity.

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