By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
The transition back to civilian life proves challenging for many veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At Cowboy Up!, a free program in New Mexico founded by retired U.S. marshal and former Green Beret Rick Iannucci and his wife, Nancy De Santis, a certified equine gestalt coach, horses serve to help veterans bridge the gap between their warrior and civilian lives.
The immersive program involves participants in ranch life, from caring for and riding horses to working cattle and, in the evenings, “porch sitting.”1 Part of the benefit comes from the camaraderie with other veterans and the routine, which taps into the veterans’ military experience, while allowing them to form new positive memories during the process, which Iannucci and De Santis refer to as Skill-set Restructuring.
“Skill-set Restructuring activates many combat warrior associations: situational awareness, teamwork, improvisation, preparation, decorum, rules of engagement and aesthetics (for example, cowboys, like military personnel, wear uniforms),” DVM 360 reported, yet, in the serene setting of the ranch, participants are able to immerse themselves in the present, form new positive memories and heal. A key part of the process is the relationships formed with the horses themselves. Iannucci told DVM 360:2
“Our Native American veterans tell us that the horses are the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world … They carry us both physically and spiritually. For many warriors, emotional feelings can get out of alignment when they try to transition to civilian life. Horses provide a ground, a center, that helps many veterans deal with the spiritual dissonance they’re experiencing.”
Horses Help Veterans Heal
The therapeutic nature of interacting with horses is no secret. Horse riding was recommended to lift spirits among those with chronic illnesses in ancient Greece3 and prescribed as a treatment for neurological conditions as early as the 1600s,4 and, in the modern day, research has shown that caring for horses lowers stress levels in children. Equine-assisted therapy programs are available that may help people with a variety of conditions, from depression and anxiety to autism and dementia.
In fact, when participants with PTSD engaged in tasks with horses for six weekly two-hour sessions, they reported significantly reduced post-traumatic stress symptoms, less severe emotional responses to trauma, less generalized anxiety and fewer symptoms of depression, along with decreased alcohol use.5
Likewise, research points to turning to nature, and specifically building relationships with animals like dogs and horses, as a novel way for military veterans to “become human again” and recover from stress and PTSD.6 This is where Cowboy Up! excels. Yale School of Medicine’s Dr. Gerald Valentine, who acts as the Cowboy Up! program psychiatrist, explained to DVM 360:7
“There’s benefit from even short-term interactions with horses … But developing a relationship with horses over time reinforces the benefit from a neurological and social engagement standpoint. Safe, meaningful interactions with another living being can be a social catalyst for veterans who feel threatened by human relationships.”
Interacting with horses also helps veterans to live in the present moment, focusing on their daily care and rhythm of riding rather than traumatic memories. Meanwhile, building a relationship with horses may prompt the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin, which is sometimes decreased in veterans with PTSD.
In addition, a therapeutic riding program that took place over a 24-week period and involved 13 veterans also revealed significant benefits, as reported in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development:8
“The participants stopped avoiding other people, became less detached from their surroundings, demonstrated more engagement with the horses and volunteers, began to express some form of hope, and in many cases, demonstrated improvement in physical symptoms.
The program provided them with a safe environment in which they could self-explore their [post-deployment] behaviors and emotions. As one participant explained, ‘You get forced to bring [problems] up and deal with them to the horse. It's pretty interesting. It's amazing.’”
Relationships With Horses Bring Well-Being to Wounded Warriors
At Cowboy Up!, veterans engage in hands-on work with horses and “low stress” cattle handling from day one. But it’s not the horsemanship, per se, that leads to the most breakthroughs — it’s the relationship with the horses.
“Sharing our experience, our strengths, and hopes we give veterans a new and vital mission where they can recuperate, recreate, and reintegrate into their communities. We believe that Horsemanship is Leadership and by assisting veterans through the way of the horse and cowboy culture, we are able to support their journey, integrating mind, body and spirit,” the program notes.
Staffed entirely by volunteers and privately funded by donations, the program is free and open to all honorably discharged post-9/11 veterans as well as current active military, reserve or National Guard members.
If you or someone you love is struggling with the emotional and physical aftermath of military service, Cowboy Up! has the potential to provide life-changing support. In one case study of a twice-deployed combat medic who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, researchers theorized that the ability to direct and control a horse would decrease anxiety, improve social functioning, lead to a sense of empowerment and facilitate a relationship between the horse and the veteran, and they were right.
After working with the horse, the veteran experienced significant improvement in measures of psychological functioning along with an increase in sleep quality.9 The Cowboy Up! program has the added benefit of comradery with other veterans and an immersive environment that allows participants to fully focus on building their relationships with horses while forging a new pathway to healing.