Still, the researchers were skeptical about what kind of concrete evidence they would find for equine therapy as a treatment for trauma.
Ryba, who acts as a liaison with the veteran community, recalls his own skepticism. “You mean we’re going to brush horses for a couple of weeks and our trauma is going to go away?” he joked when he first heard the idea.
The results surprised them: More than half of the patients recovered from PTSD and three months later continued to show improvement. Dr. Neria shares that overall, the veterans reported fewer feelings of depression, distance from others, inability to sleep, anger, and suicidal thoughts. They also reported less hypervigilance, nightmares, and feelings of needing to be alert and on guard.
“We were very pleased to see such a dramatic change in what they reported to us,” says Dr. Neria.
Changes appeared in the brain, too. “When we looked at the brain scans and compared post-treatment scans to pre-treatment scans, I was even more surprised to find both structural and functional changes in the brain, particularly in the areas where some of our capacity to seek and enjoy pleasurable experience is located,” says Dr. Neria. “That’s a very interesting finding.”
Dropout rates of the trial were low, which is also unique. “It was the first time we had people who wanted to stay and continue the treatment,” says Ryba. A few veterans continue to visit the center to work with the horses.
The team is piloting a study for adolescents with anxiety at the center, and preparing for a larger, full-scale randomized control trial to study equine therapy for PTSD further.
While the researchers are not sure exactly why the therapy helps so much, they have a few theories: the peaceful environment away from the city, the group exercises, and the mirroring of emotion between the horses and humans.
“Overcoming a sense of fear and anxiety, and being able to bond and feel safe with the animal — that’s part of the process that was key to their healing,” says Dr. Neria. Horses have also served with military for thousands of years, both Dr. Neria and Ryba point out.
Ryba says as a veteran, he can relate to a retired racehorse like Crafty, who he thinks of as having had a high-intensity, fast-paced job before serving as a therapy horse. “You feel a little bit lost when it’s behind you,” he says. “We can understand that.”
For Ryba, part of his purpose now is to help others. He has dealt with survivor’s guilt after losing 38 fellow service members during the time he served and another 10 to suicide once they returned home. He says, “If I’m not helping this population, then I am not doing the right kind of work.”
He was encouraged that many of the participants decided to try talk or exposure therapy after completing the equine therapy, and believes that PTSD is curable. “It’s not a scarlet letter, and you can do things to overcome the diagnosis,” he says. “It can get better.”