By Wendy Sarubbi | December 9, 2013 11:22 am

Combat veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were less depressed and experienced fewer symptoms after participating in a new local therapeutic horseback riding therapy, according to a study conducted by the UCF College of Medicine.

The study followed eight Central Florida veterans who sustained physical and emotional injuries through combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam. They were the first to go through a new eight–week Horses and Heroes equestrian program coordinated by UCF, Heavenly Hoofs, and SADLES of Umatilla.

The study found that by working with horses that are ultrasensitive to emotions and nonverbal communication, the veterans increased their emotional awareness, elevated their mood and better modulated their emotions.

“The biggest factor for these veterans was that working with the horses made them feel safe and secure,” said Dr. Manette Monroe, an assistant dean for students at the College of Medicine and a lifelong horse rider. She was the study’s lead author. “Most of these guys had never been on a horse in their lives, so to get up on a 1,000 pound animal pushes them beyond their comfort zone. But they were willing to try. And by putting themselves out there, they feel increased confidence and inner peace.”

Equestrian therapy is a relatively new approach to PTSD. So far little scientific study exists on the programs that do exist in some parts of the nation. That’s why Monroe is working to set up a national equestrian therapy center in Osceola County that would be properly staffed to document what works and why and develop best practices. That way more veterans could benefit from good programs.

Osceola County commissioners recently approved building a center at the county’s Chisolm Park, just minutes from the UCF medical school. The facility will include indoor arenas, which would be available for year-round therapy sessions. The center is scheduled for completion by spring.

Lido Santos, one of the participants in the program, is eager to see the program expand. He hopes more study will be done quickly so others can benefit from the work in Orlando. Santos lost one of his legs at the hip in Iraq and rides without a prosthetic.

“This therapy really does save lives,” Santos said. “The sensitivity of horses was what really stuck with me — that a creature this big could be so sensitive he can feel a fly on his back.”

Hyper-sensitivity is a key issue for those with PTSD. In response to a traumatic combat event, veterans become hyper-vigilant, anxious, always on-guard. Loud noises and crowds can evoke fear, which a soldier finds unacceptable based on his or her training culture. So fear turns to anger, sometimes manifesting itself through physical violence. Faced with such emotions and the need for protection, many PTSD vets isolate themselves, never leaving their home. Some turn to substance abuse to mask their pain.

Monroe and other therapists say horses are perfect for veterans’ therapy, because they are equally sensitive. Horses are prey animals so their first reaction is to flee. Even a quietly nervous rider makes a horse nervous because horses are so sensitive to nonverbal communication. By working with the creatures, veterans learn they must control their emotions and movements. Equestrian therapist Cher Myers calls it “life up,” and “life down.”  Some life events require you to increase your energy; others require you to dial down the emotions.

Veterans practiced those skills at a recent Horses and Heroes session at Osceola Heritage Park, when they had to convince their horses to follow them in a circle and then step over small jumps. The vets weren’t riding the horses. They had to convince them to move by their voices and gestures. Too much energy made the horses nervous. They just ran around, laid their ears back in defiance and refused to do what they were told. A calm approach, where veterans stepped over the jumps first and got the horses to then follow, made all the difference.

Monroe’s early study included industry standard tests for PTSD and depression as well as narrative evaluations with each of the eight veterans. Before the equestrian treatment, the vets’ mean score on Becks Depression Index was 19.4 with a range of 43 to 8. After the treatment, the depression score dropped to 8.5 and a range of 28 to 2. The most impressive result was a veteran who began with a score of 43, indicating severe depression, and improved to a 13 (minimal depression) after the therapy. The statistical results were backed up by anonymous narrative comments. As one veteran explained, “What we went through as a group provided more peace than I think most of the guys have experienced in a while.”

In the future, the study will expand to determine whether equestrian therapy aids “neuroplasticity,” the idea that the brain changes and atrophies because of environmental factors such as stress. Such factors change cells in parts of the brain that impact personality, self-regulation, anger and memory.  Previous studies have found that mindfulness-based stress reduction in women with chronic fatigue syndrome can reverse some brain atrophy and improve cognitive functions. The College of Medicine hopes to replicate that study with veterans and also look at how equestrian therapy helps disabled veterans physically. Monroe also has a grant to study the impact of equestrian therapy on autistic children.

But some don’t need lots of data to know that the program works.

Joshua Cope lost both legs in a bombing attack in Afghanistan. Cope rides Seemore, a therapy horse in the program that also is a rodeo trick riding horse on weekends. Seemore is used to galloping with a trick rider hanging upside down from his saddle, her head just inches from the ground. So he can calmly navigate the uneven balance and weight distribution of a rider with missing limbs.

“This helped me,” Cope said of the therapy program. “I was in a really dark place a few months ago. But being part of a team again and being able to interact…I never rode a horse before. But Seemore and I, we figure out a way.”

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