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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Veterans Healing With Horsepower

by Shannon K. Spellman, M.S.W., LCSW, LMFT, LISAC

Why would veterans benefit from hanging out in an arena with a bunch of horses and engaging in this therapeutic modality referred to here as equine assisted healing? Well, it’s actually a very effective, non-threatening, non-stigmatizing method for coping with stress, grief and loss, relationship problems, addictions, PTSD, deployment separation issues, and adjustment problems to returning home. We hear firsthand from veterans how powerful being around horses has been for them.

Paul Knutson served in the United States Army as an Infantryman from 28 January 2003 to 20 April 2011. He deployed with 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from January 2004 to April 2005, and October 2006 to January 2008. Paul was wounded in 2004 in an ambush and was awarded the Purple Heart. During his tours, Paul and his teams were subjected to several Improvised Explosive Devices. As a result, Paul has been diagnosed with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. After his second tour, Paul broke his back in training and was subsequently medically retired from the Army. Paul is now pursuing a college education in the field of radiography.

Reintegrating into the herd

Paul offers his experiences, strength, and hope about how horses have helped him. “In 2011, I was medically discharged from the Army because I had broken my back and could no longer perform my duties as a soldier. I was lost and had no direction because I had planned on spending my life in the military. Transitioning into the civilian workforce was a daunting task as there wasn’t any structure anymore that I could rely on. Even after gaining employment, I wasn’t happy because I didn’t understand my role in this new chapter of my life and I certainly didn’t appreciate working with people who didn’t share the same vision of work ethic as I had learned in the military.

My mom found a horse for me that needed training, as he hadn’t been handled for the first several years of his life. Horses aren’t judgmental; they are herd animals that are just trying to survive day to day. Learning this about my horse, and working with him, taught me that people tend to live life the same way. In working with him, I have learned a lot about my own social tendencies and have overcome a lot of my anxieties of reintegrating into the herd that is civil society. I am now in school, am able to socialize with non-military people, and have a lot to look forward to every morning when I wake up. I don’t think I would have been able to bounce back as quickly as I have without my horse.”
Paul continues, “I recently attended a Healing with Horsepower event for veterans and was able to see other veterans be able to connect with the horses. It was powerful to see them distinguish the different personalities within the herd and then be able to identify with them. I believe that horses are an invaluable resource for veterans. I want to be able to share this experience with all of my friends that I served with and with other fellow veterans that I have met along the way.” We are honored to have Paul Knutson volunteering in our equine assisted program for veterans.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Across the nation, veterans are receiving help in programs that offer horse therapy. The term, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy was first introduced by Greg Kersten, a veteran and horseman, and founder of EAGALA. Training horses helped him improve his own mental well-being, and his exercises are used in many programs worldwide. Greg developed some equine assisted exercises specific to working with veterans. Greg teaches about many things including how horses respond to pressure and pain versus how people react to pressure and pain. Veterans’ responses are often influenced by military training.

For some veterans, exposure to traumatic events experienced or witnessed during military service can result in difficulties that come creeping back up months or years later into one’s memories in a very intrusive fashion, and they may find themselves without adequate coping tools to process these experiences. We’ve come to know this problem as shell shock from WWII, later as combat stress, and more commonly today as PTSD. Many veterans have experienced some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress even when they don’t meet the full criterion for a formal diagnosis of PTSD.

Vernon K. Rogers, a veteran and avid horseman shared his experience with me about how horses help him with stress relief and overall health. “I was in the Navy from 64 to 68, doing two tours of duty in Nam on a tin can (destroyer). My duties, among others, included an air controller. Upon my discharge I headed back home. I had bad nightmares off and on and when I had one I couldn’t go back to sleep as I was so uptight and tense. Then one night knowing I couldn’t go back to sleep, I got up and went out to my horse. After 30 minutes of talking and brushing him, I was really relaxed and went back to the house and fell to sleep. I found this worked really well and eventually they came less and less as I also learned what triggered them.

To this day I cannot watch war movies. Later in life I worked for the Dept. of Energy as a Power System Controller, working shift work. When I had a really stressful shift once I got home I would go out to the horses, pet and talk to them or sometimes get on and go for a ride. They have never failed to be there for me. In my retirement horses are helping me stay active.”

According to data from the VA, in 2011 alone, there were over 475,000 veterans who were treated for PTSD. This does not begin to reflect the actual numbers of veterans struggling with PTSD since there are an increasing number of veterans who are resistant to seeking help, and the number of veterans who have sought help and not received it due to the extreme service delivery problems recently discovered within the VA system. The consequences to veterans of not getting help, or receiving help that results in worsening symptoms are reflected in the rates of suicide and substance abuse for veterans.

Every 65 Minutes

Every 65 minutes, a veteran commits suicide. That’s 22 suicides per day with numbers actually higher due to some states not reporting and some veterans not being counted. In a 2007 SAMHSA survey of all veterans, 1.8 million met the criteria for a substance abuse disorder. Veterans are also becoming addicted to prescription opiate pain killers at an alarming rate due to injuries sustained during their service. In this year alone, over half a million veterans have been prescribed addictive opiate medications. Some veterans may develop gambling addictions or other adrenaline seeking compulsive behaviors in an attempt to cope with the adjustment to returning home.

When veterans seek help for PTSD at the VA or through Tri-Care, they typically receive group therapy with a Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) modality, and often psychotropic medication including antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. Unfortunately, the potential adverse effects of anti-anxiety medications are developing an addiction to the medication where tolerance results in never having enough, and withdrawals result in a return or worsening of PTSD symptoms. The adverse effects of antidepressants can include increased risks of hostility, violent behavior, and suicide.

Ross Libonati, a veteran and President of Horse Lovers Management Corp., knows about some of these problems all too well, and for years has found his own comfort in riding and working with horses. Ross explained, “I joined the Air Force in 1963 and discharged in 1967. I was security for the 320th bomb wing, the first B-52 bomb wing to bomb Vietnam. I did two tours. I know what horses can do for the heart, mind, and spirit. I know that if horses were not in my life I would have been dead by now because of self-medicating (alcohol, drugs etc.). It was my idea to start this program because I know the healing that horses can bring to your life. We are not affiliated with any government agency. We’re just veterans helping veterans with guidance from horses and qualified professionals. Come and join us. See how it works.” Ross and his wife, Kathy, volunteer in the veteran’s groups and Horse Lovers Park donates the arena. The program is run solely on donations with the seed money coming from veterans helping veterans.

Both the licensed therapist (myself), and the equine professional, Faith Knutson, M.A., are horsewomen and family members of veterans, and both of us are certified to offer Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. As a therapist with specialties that include PTSD and addictions, I have watched many clients make rapid progress with the addition of equine assisted work.

While it’s not a cure all, it definitely has advantages in working with veterans and their families as they are able to accomplish healing that otherwise wouldn’t likely occur in traditional therapy sessions. It’s something you have to experience in order to understand. If you’re a veteran or a family member of a veteran, you are invited to join us in the arena and experience firsthand the healing power of horses.


For more information about our Veterans Healing With Horsepower program, find us on the web at www.HealingWithHorsepower.com/veterans_eap.html Feel free to contact us with any questions. Our dedicated phone number for the veteran’s program is (719) 497-9734. You can also reach me at my office at Veritas Counseling Center, LLC at (602) 863-3939.

Veterans can download a flyer at http://www.healingwithhorsepower.com/veterans_flyer.pdf with the workshop address and signup instructions. The groups are provided at no cost and currently meet monthly on the first Tuesdays from 6-9 PM at Horse Lovers Park in Phoenix.

There are no eligibility restrictions and no required proof of service forms. Groups are open to all veterans and their family members both in and out of recovery rooms.

To make a tax deductible donation to this program to help veterans and families, you may do so online at http://www.azhorseloverspark.org   Please specify in the instructions that you want your donation to go toward the Veteran’s program. Checks may be mailed to the Event Coordinator, Horse Lovers Management Corporation, 515 E. Carefree Highway #849, Phoenix, AZ 85085. Please write Veteran’s program in the memo on your check.


[1] Kersten, G.. 2008-2013. OK Corral Series Seminars.
[1] Veterans Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, VA, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, accessed online 10-18-14. http://www.va.gov/opa/issues/ptsd.asp
[1] Military With PTSD. November11, 2013. “Why are Veterans Afraid to Get Help for PTSD?” accessed 10-18-14. https://www.facebook.com/notes/military-with-ptsd/why-are-veterans-afraid-to-get-help-for-ptsd/658696730828524
[1] Moore, W.. “Facts & Figures about Veterans and Soldiers,” Coming Back with Wes Moore, a featured program of PBS, accessed online 10-18-14. http://www.pbs.org/coming-back-with-wes-moore/about/facts/
[1] Basu, M. November 14, 2013. “Why suicide rates among veterans may be more than 22 a day,” CNN, accessed online 10-17-14. http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/21/us/22-veteran-suicides-a-day/
[1] American Psychological Association, “The Critical Need for Mental Health Professionals Trained to Treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury,” accessed online 10-20-14. http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/military/critical-need.aspx
[1]  Lawrence, Q. July 10, 2014. “A Growing Number of Veterans Struggle to Quit Powerful Painkillers,” Shots Health News from NPR, accessed online 10-17-14. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/07/10/329904066/veterans-face-another-battle-fighting-prescription-drug-addiction
[1] “Cognitive Processing Therapy”, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, US Department of Veterans Affairs, accessed online 10-18-14. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/cognitive_processing_therapy.asp
[1] Billings, PhD., B., Retired Col. and former military psychologist, “Psychiatric Drugs Cause Suicide,” Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights, accessed online 10-18-14. http://www.cchr.org/documentaries/the-hidden-enemy/psychiatric-drugs-cause-suicide.html