If a horse lets you pick its foot up off the ground, that’s a big deal. The action destabilizes the horse, so allowing someone to hold its foot means the horse believes the person means no harm.
At the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia, N.J., that sort of trust-building exercise isn’t just for the four-legged. A team of Columbia University researchers there is taking an unusual approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder, by having veterans spend time with horses.
As it turns out, these people and animals have some important commonalities.
“Horses, by nature, they’re sort of prey animals, and so they’re hyper-vigilant and reactive to people’s behavior,” said Prudence Fisher, a professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia, who has been co-directing the study for the past year. “If you approach them aggressively they’ll move away from you. So it helps people recognize how they’re approaching people.”
In the study, three or four veterans at a time spend 90 minutes with two horses and two staff members once a week for eight weeks, slowly learning to interact with and become comfortable with the animals and learning about themselves through them.
“The veterans feel that the horses are mirroring what they feel,” said Yuval Neria, a medical psychology professor at Columbia and the study’s other director. At the outset, “Both the horses and the vets kind of exhibit or even suffer from the same fear circuit-based behavior. They are both fearful, initially, they are both apprehensive, initially, they avoid being together initially, and over time they develop the ability to be together.”
The idea is to address PTSD, a signature disorder among veterans which has a host of emotional symptoms, from angry outbursts to difficulty sleeping to trouble concentrating to avoidance of trauma-related triggers. Pharmacological and traditional talk therapy are not always effective, so alternative approaches are on the rise.