By Britney Grover
Many horse lovers know of the therapeutic nature of being around horses. Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) has become more and more popular across the country to help those with physical, mental or emotional challenges. Some organizations have even recognized the efficacy of EAT in veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a group with tragically high suicide rates — but until now, there has never been a controlled research study on how EAT can help PTSD.
As a veteran of the U.S. Army and someone who bred and owned racehorses for over 50 years, Earle I. Mack realized that establishing EAT programs for PTSD could fill two needs: helping veterans and giving horses, including off-the-track racehorses, second careers. He founded the Man O’ War Project in partnership with top researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and other experts not only to develop a manualized treatment plan for EAT with PTSD but to prove its effectiveness.
Co-directors for research are Dr. Prudence Fisher, associate professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia and research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Dr. Yuval Neria, Columbia’s professor of medical psychology as well as director of trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Working from Columbia and conducting trials in Leonia, New Jersey, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Neria are both passionate about changing the way veterans can receive help.
“I think one of the things that drew us to the project, besides recognizing that other treatments are needed than what’s currently available, was that we both like horses and we both had horses at some point,” Dr. Fisher said. “It made it interesting and appealing, though I don’t think either of us had ever thought about horses in a therapeutic setting before we got involved with this project.”
After being approached by Earle Mack, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Neria began looking into EAT. “The most interesting part of this pre-project inquiry was meeting a number of horse experts that really convinced us that horses can be truly healing for a number of disorders including depression, PTSD and childhood disorders including autism and physical disabilities,” Dr. Neria said. “We were encouraged by what we heard, and there was sufficient initial anecdotal evidence to help us make a decision that a careful examination of the question whether horses can be helpful in PTSD was worthwhile to explore.”
With a team of experts in PTSD treatment, psychiatry, mental health, equine therapy and horse handling, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Neria first created a manualized treatment program and tested it on two groups. “It’s an eight-week program with 90-minute sessions once a week,” Dr. Fisher explained. “Based on those two initial groups, we made some tweaks. Now we’re trying it out in an open trial.”
In groups of three to six veterans with two horses, veterans are guided through interactions with the horse from the ground. The groups are led by mental health professionals as well as horse specialists and experienced handlers, and participants are regularly assessed to track progress. Participation in the open trial is free for veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
“We are part of a medical tradition in which treatment should be validated first, making sure they are safe, acceptable and can be linked to credible results,” Dr. Neria said. “Under this requirement, we put together a protocol in which we assess the severity of the problem that patients with PTSD have before, during and after treatment. We make sure everybody’s getting the same treatment, so we make sure that any results of the treatment are really measurable and can be attributed to the treatment.”
While other EAT programs for PTSD can be helpful to those who have the chance participate, the Man O’ War Project aims for an even bigger change. “Once we have positive results, the data can be publishable and also lead toward changing the way veterans and others with PTSD can receive treatment, such as through the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense,” Dr. Neria continued. “We’re really hoping that good results will eventually facilitate development in both policy and treatment.”
Dr. Neria and Dr. Fisher expect the research study to last at least another year. Seeded with a grant from the Earle I. Mack Foundation, the Man O’ War Project will continue to be funded both through direct donations and donations through events such as Equestricon in Saratoga, New York, and the Washington International Horse Show. People can also help by referring veterans diagnosed with PTSD who might be interested in participating in the research study to the website. As the first study of its kind, the Man O’ War Project hopes to open the door to new treatment options for those who need it most.
For more information, visit www.MOWProject.org.
Photos courtesy of the Man O’ War Project, unless otherwise noted