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Montana VA Health Care System

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Equine Therapy Program

Carl Cossitt and April Brazill with horses used in the Equine Therapy program.

April Brazill and Carl Cossitt with two of the horses used in the Equine Therapy program.

By Terrie Casey
Thursday, October 3, 2013

In an indoor arena in the East Valley of Helena, Equine Specialist, April Brazill and Mental Health Specialist, Carl Cossitt, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, provide Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) for Veterans. This program began June 13, 2013. This is a new program for VA Montana Health Care System.

The program is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the Veterans and horses to address treatment goals. The program follows the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) model.

The Equine Therapy program for VA Montana began as an idea from one of the LEAD groups two years ago at the suggestion of the Director. LEAD stands for Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Development. This is a program that employees in VA Montana can participate to gain additional knowledge about the VA and grow in their leadership abilities. Each group that participates has a project that they work on during the six month program. The group participants were: Wendy Bantz, April Brazil, Denise Frankino, Kathy Reed and Kristal Richards.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy has been used nationally and internationally as an effective treatment. President Obama has allotted funds for Veterans rehabilitation. Horses work well in this type of therapy. They are very social animals, much like humans. Horses “mirror exactly what human body language is telling them and therefore provide us with metaphors and lessons about ourselves to help facilitate change.” (Trask, 2010)1

Some of the mental health issues that can be addressed are: PTSD, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, communication needs, behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, and , eating disorders,. For Veterans, this treatment can be very beneficial.

The program is not about riding horses or learning horsemanship, this is an experiential psychotherapy program done from the ground. There are activities that the Veterans work with the horses to perform. Some of the tools that are used in the activities are long poles, noodles (long foam tubes) and small cones. Depending on the goal of the Veteran, the tools are placed and the Veteran is given a task to perform with the horse. The process involves teamwork, leadership, creative thinking and problem solving. Many of the people participating in EAP form a close bond with the horses. This approach to therapy is considered to be a short term approach.

The program focuses on action, not talking. The horses respond to nonverbal communication, which can be much more effective than traditional “talk therapy”. Horses are able to assist the Veteran with their communication. The program encourages the participants to find solutions to problems by learning to rely on themselves and team members. During the exercise, the participants can encounter frustrations that they experience similar to what they deal with outside the program and by working with the horses, they learn to adjust and overcome the frustrations. Veterans in the program learn to work on a relationship with the horse and that they cannot “control” the horse. The Veterans feel accepted and not judged by the horses.

So far, the program has experienced a 100% show rate, meaning that no Veteran has no showed to an appointment. One Veteran reports, “I think I’ve learned more about myself and others in just four visits.”

1Dr. Laura Trask, Psychology Today blog 2010.

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