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Local organization becomes leader in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder

Posted on Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

By Tiffanie Reynolds

Staff Writer

There’s nothing more powerful than the connection between man and horse, and Heavenly Hoofs, home of HeavenlyHoofs01_050312the McCormick Research Center in Kissimmee, can scientifically prove it.

Working with Manette Monroe, dean of students at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, Heavenly Hoofs will be presenting its initial findings of a three-year study at the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, or PATH, international meeting in November. The study proves the effects of equestrian therapy, or therapy using horses, on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It also sets Heavenly Hoofs to become the first international research center on equestrian therapy in the nation.

“What we would like to do is, with our research, come up with a program other centers can use to deal with veterans or anyone suffering from PTSD, and allow them to see that research and apply that to their own programs. We are becoming an institute of research that can train other centers, that can lend them our curriculum to operate, that can benefit from the results that we’ve seen and even use our methods for themselves,” Dennis Norris, executive director of Heavenly Hoofs, said.

Its veteran therapy program, Horses and Heroes, began two years ago when Monroe paid a visit to the organization. She explained to them her idea of conducting research on equestrian therapy for veterans, after finding no formal research on the topic herself. Heavenly Hoofs agreed to be a partner in it, with Caity Wall, a PATH international certified riding instructor, as the therapeutic riding instructor. Cher Myers, founder of SADLES Ranch and wellness center in Lake County would become curriculum developer and mental health therapist and Monroe was tasked with the collecting and quantifying the data.

Horses and Heroes is a 10-week program for eight veterans who have never experienced therapeutic riding, said Monroe. Before they are introduced to the horses, they take a mental health survey rating their level of anxiety, depression and how well they work with others. Then, they spend the next 10 weeks learning how to care, saddle and ride a horse, along with getting to know each other. At the end of the 10 weeks, they take the same mental health survey to compare the changes from their original rating and talk with Monroe about their experience and the program.

“From the first two groups, huge improvements in depression scores. Their depression went away, their anxiety was reduced. They all told us about how much better they’re acting with their families, how much more comfortable they felt going out in public. Several of them went back to school, because of the confidence they gained from working with the horses. We have one gentleman who lost his leg at the hip, and he actually, after riding horses, started to ride a bicycle,” Monroe said.

With Heavenly Hoofs working with its third group of veterans, Monroe said it should have enough data to establish a curriculum for a veteran equestrian therapy program by the end of 2014. That also will be the same time that Heavenly Hoofs’ new PATH accredited facility is scheduled to open in Chisholm Park. With a covered arena, a 22-stall barn and offices, the new facility will designate them as an international research center for equestrian therapy, once they are approved by PATH.

Equestrian therapy, which is used in many centers around the world but never formally studied, is used not only for veterans with stress disorders and physical injuries, but also for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anger management, anxiety and other mental illnesses. What sets this type of therapy apart from more traditional methods is the emphasis on the relationship between the horse and rider. The centers that use this therapy, including Myers and Norris, said that the way horses react to the rider’s mood while working with them helps the rider realize what they have to change in themselves to handle the horse better.

“A horse shows them where they’re really at. And, you can talk the talk, but unless you know the walk, you have no idea what it’s like to experience severe and serious trauma, like our veterans have. The impact of that is so profound and so life altering. The horses give, in a very non-threating way, an eye to what’s going on with them,” Myers said.

Myers, who comes from a military family and has worked with veterans for years as a therapist, understood the group mentality in military life and incorporated it into the curriculum. With the veterans, she included group activities such as horse drills, where vets have to coordinate with their horses and each other doing various drills, and group warmup activities before the veterans saddle up and ride.

Myers said that this program is only one part of a series of programs for veterans. Once they establish a proven equestrian therapy program for vets, she planned to establish a second therapy program where veterans and their spouses or family members work together through the therapy. This, she anticipated, would help the veterans integrate into civilian life as well as help their partner understand what they have gone through in the battlefield.