Katie Gordon always thought she was pretty good at hiding her post-traumatic stress disorder, but last summer she quickly learned you can’t fool a horse.
“The horses sense everything whether you want them to or not,” she said. “I didn’t fool them and that was a real eye opener for me.”
Horses are extremely perceptive. They seem to know what we’re feeling, even when we don’t.
According to the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for PTSD, the syndrome causes something called hypervigilance, a tendency to feel amped up all the time, as if danger were to strike at any moment. The disorder also makes people emotionally numb and socially withdrawn, unable to feel anything but anger and sadness.
Horses naturally reflect our emotions like a mirror
As prey animals, the horses naturally pick up on this. So, in order to commune with one, people afflicted with PTSD like Gordon, must learn to deliberately drop their guard in order to connect with the animal, a skill they can then use in their own lives, to rebuild their emotional confidence and human relationships.
“If you have that guard up, they will respect that,” Gordon said. “Allowing that horse to come in, and share that space was, a really big opportunity for me to apply to my life, to learn that [people] want to be close to me, and I wasn’t allowing them to be.”
“I think if you spoke to the members of my family, they would certainly say that after last summer I became a different person.”
It’s a life-changing idea for PTSD sufferers, an idea Charles Nelson, a clinical psychologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Centre in London and the clinician in charge of the study, calls “equine bio-feedback.”
“Having first responders gain some familiarization and safety of basic horsemanship gives them an opportunity to self-regulate their own emotions because the horses mirror that back.”
For eight weeks, Nelson had a group of eight southwestern Ontario first responders, including paramedics, firefighters and police officers who suffered from PTSD work closely with horses and their handlers at Belvoir Estate Farm in Delaware, Ont., on top of their regular therapy.
The study, a Canadian first conducted by the PTSD Association of Canada, is based on the work of Dr. Allan Hamilton, who has studied the therapeutic power of communing with horses. In his study, Nelson found that by building a connection with a horse, it accelerated the healing for the first responders involved.
Working with horses accelerated recovery process
“It accelerated the recovery process,” Nelson said, adding the participants were able to return to work, rebuild their relationships and start socializing again faster than their counterparts who were doing conventional psychotherapy alone.
“There’s no riding these horses. They’re just spending time over eight weeks in a safe capacity and it has accelerated the folks doing conventional therapy as usual.”
The study found that more than half of the participants no longer met the DSM-5 criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder at the end of the eight-week program.
A number of participants also found the therapy helped their depression symptoms caused by PTSD, which Nelson said arises from the inability to take joy from interacting with other human beings and, contrary to popular belief, can often the most crippling part of the disorder.
“It’s a massive retreat, which is usually the hallmark of PTSD.”
“A lot of folks think watching Hollywood movies, it’s a lot of re-experiencing nightmares, flashbacks. That is part of the phenomenon, but a more incapacitating part of the syndrome which is PTSD is in fact avoidance, social avoidance and that is a big barrier to getting people back into their work roles. “
Learning to move a one-thousand-plus pound prey animal without speaking is a boon for PTSD sufferers, who’ve potentially faced many months and years avoiding human contact because the disorder has caused them to lose faith in their own ability to regulate their emotions.
For Katie Gordon, learning to speak to horses using her body and feelings instead of using her words, gave her the confidence to “get back on the horse” so to speak and start her return to work process with a newfound confidence.
“I think the horses know what you are putting out there. The energy you’re putting out there by not speaking,” she said. “It was a really great opportunity for me to connect with the energy I was putting out and the energy that I had within me.”
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