Horses As Catalysts For Post Traumatic Growth

After surviving combat, life-threatening illness, or the loss of a loved one, sufferers of PTSD turn to horses to invite joy back into their lives.

By Laura Williams, Equine Pathfinders Foundation volunteer, Founder of Humans and Horses-Russia

A horse hug provides soothing therapy.

I’ve never been in a war zone, thankfully. I have never had to kill someone or been shell shocked. 

But I did watch someone close to me die. 

Nearly a year ago, we lost my husband’s son to cancer. Last week would have been his 37th birthday. Everyone near and dear to me was affected by the emotional trauma of grief.  Priorities changed, relationships changed, I changed. Going back to a previously normal life no longer seemed possible, or even desirable.

Since our son passed, we have struggled to cope with the pain, each in our own way: finding release for our grief; growing from the experience; retreating into an impenetrable emotional fortress; or simply losing ourselves in the task at hand. My husband spent his days burying his grief in mounds of dirt he moved for a landscaping project on our property. Other family members set out on trips to places they’d never even dreamed of visiting or took on new commitments to refocus their energy.

For me, it was the horses. My eight furry therapists kept me going through the long, dark winter – both the need to care for them, and the connectedness and support I felt in their midst. Having a horse rub up against me or just stand quietly nearby – the equine version of a hug – is perhaps one of the most uplifting and empathetic therapies I have yet to experience.

Bereavement, life-threatening illness, war – all these can trigger post traumatic stress (PTSD), a condition often accompanied by extreme anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, and nightmares. Or they can trigger post traumatic growth. Or both.

Post traumatic growth, according to a study published in 2011 in American Psychologist, refers to the positive personal changes resulting from the struggle to deal with trauma and its psychological consequences.

Is Post Traumatic Growth Possible?

So is it possible to for us to have more fulfilling lives, become better human beings, and be more emotionally resilient following traumatic experiences? Or is it, in fact, the emotional or physical trauma itself that makes this growth possible? 

Perhaps the ways in which people with PTSD are supported will determine whether they continue to suffer from the experience or are able to move forward to find peace and happiness in their lives.

For me, the time I spent just being with my herd of eight helped me to ground, stay present, and – though at times it no longer seemed possible – find moments of joy. The horses’ calm presence and connectedness to nature helped me to find peace in our loss, and to accept that death was a part of life.

According to clinical psychologist Geraldine Keith, who has been practicing for over 35 years and began to enlist horses in her work after training with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) in 2014, “Horse are walking sensate. They are this extraordinary mix — more so than other animals — of mindfulness and being grounded. Horses are superb catalysts for healing and empowerment.” 

Geraldine has seen first hand how effective working with horses has been for people suffering with PTSD compared to traditional talk therapy. “I have seen waves of fashionable treatment models — from psychoanalysis to behaviour therapy to hypnotherapy…But with equine therapy, somehow, all that sits quietly in the background as I observe what is happening out there in the paddock.”

Today PTSD is a recognized affliction for military veterans, first responders, and law enforcement officers. Soldiers and police officers learn to shoot, defend themselves, and report on what they observe, but they aren’t taught how to cope with the emotional trauma that is left in the wake of duty.

Horses and combat veterans have much in common: they are wary of and slow to trust others; they are constantly scanning their surroundings; and their senses are always on high alert for danger. These traits might help horses survive, but people with PTSD often find them debilitating, resulting in disturbed sleep, depression, and even suicide. The US Veteran Affairs’ Office of Suicide Prevention reported that in 2014, each day an average of 20 veterans took their own lives.

What Makes Equine-assisted Therapy Different?

One reason veterans and others are attracted to equine-assisted therapy is that it doesn’t feel like therapy. In many cultures – including military culture, and in Russia where I live with my Russian husband – there’s a stigma around getting help for mental health issues. But working with horses is less formal or restrictive than room-based therapy and often takes place in a natural, peaceful setting such as a farm.

Guided by skilled facilitators who offer a safe container in which to be with the horses, clients often find emotional release, receive relaxing, positive experiences, and begin to engage meaningfully with others – first horses and then people.

In a study published in the June 2011 edition of Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, researchers in Texas found that participants in equine-assisted therapy sessions “showed improved social functioning and greater vitality…Responses indicated feelings of self-acceptance, increased confidence, gratitude, hope, reduced anxiety and anger, and increased patience.”

Rob Pliskin is a US-based EAGALA trained practitioner who worked as program director at the Equine Pathfinders Foundation in New Zealand. Rob has partnered with horses to help ­children, youths, and adults find personal strength and healing in places as far apart as northern Israel, South Head, New Zealand, and the Appalachian counties of Ohio. Rob also partners with Warrior PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes) at Boulder Crest Retreat in Virginia, U.S.A. to facilitate workshops to help veterans heal.

© Suzi Landolphi

Warrior PATHH for Veterans and Their Families at Boulder Crest Retreat, Virginia, USA. © Suzi Landolphi

“I am humbled to hold space for the horses," says Rob, "as they do their healing work with whole, strong, combat veterans nevertheless missing arms and legs; abused men, women, and youth discovering and recovering their hidden beauty; lifelong foster children longing for a connected life; and so many more wounded people. I marvel at the journeys they all make, led by their horses from the despair, anxiety, grief, and fear of post traumatic stress to the healing, self-worth, trust, and empathy of post traumatic growth, stepping into the world to build new and fruitful relationships.”

Like Rob, I too have been moved by the horses to find purpose out of our own loss. In August this year my husband and I launched an initiative to help Russian kids who have overcome cancer. We teamed up with a cancer foundation to run “Horse Power” retreats for youths whose illness is in remission. Having lived through our own family trauma, we are now in a better position to help others.

In cultures and locations around the world, Rob, Geraldine, and I have had the honor of working with horses who continue to show us the same path to healing again and again. Our job is to listen. 

"am more often a translator than anything else," says Rob, "for this language of experience the horses share

with their human herd mates, and even then only when the words are needed. Many times, they are not.”

(c) Laura WIlliams

Laura with Fable at a Horse Power Retreat for youths who beat cancer. 

Laura Williams passed away in a tragic accident in October 2018. She was the founder of Humans and Horses in western Russia, and worked with her eight horses - the Herd of Joy - to help children and adults become healthier, more heartful beings.

At the Spirit Horse Festival, we will always love and honour Laura for the wonderful soul-sister she was, as well as the outstanding contribution she made, not only to the Festival, but to EAL worldwide.

(c) Suzi Landolphi. Boulder Crest Retreat

Rob and Danny Boy at a Warrior PATHH Retreat for Combat Veterans in Virginia, U.S.A.

Rob Pliskin is an EAGALA Advanced Dual Certified Equine Specialist and Mental Health Professional. 

Geraldine Keith

Geradline Keith is a New Zealand-based clinical psychologist with over 35 years of experience. She is trained in the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association model (EAGALA) and completed two training modules of The Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies (GEIR).

Find out more about our presenters and what's in store for the 2020 festival program

  • October 18, 2017