BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Horses are intuitive creatures. Sometimes they’re so sensitive a veteran’s pain can overwhelm them.
At Animals as Natural Therapy, a five-acre farm north of Bellingham, two Iraq War veterans recently worked with horses Abby and Artemis as part of an equine therapy program for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Physically I’m just kind of worn out and tired. Been moving last week so my back and shoulders hurt,” says Iraq War veteran Ron Boettcher. “I haven’t been able to sleep very well because I went and did the interview so I can start school. I’m excited but nervous at the same time. It’s just scary as hell.”
Many veterans with PTSD are turning to horses for help. More than 30 Veteran Affairs medical centers across the country participate in this kind of therapy for service members.
Sonja Wingard grew up on this 100-year-old farm and raised most of the 20 horses who live here. Today she's a nurse and through Animals as Natural Therapy, she’s worked with teen addicts and victims of domestic abuse. She started the veterans program six years ago.
She says there’s a lot of predictability in the military. When vets come home, they try to recreate that order and structure with their families, which can cause stress. Relationships tend to suffer most.
“We’ve found working with the horses has really helped people just get that you can’t control the situation always, and that it’s OK,” Wingard says. “The horses teach them that. It’s so cool.”
Therapist Joaquin Aguirre says the horses help to normalize what veterans are going through.
Veterans struggle with hypervigilance, unable to come off on patrol, he says.
“They’re having daymares walking down the street. They’re having difficulty maybe even driving and road rage, so rage is a big one for them,” Aguirre says.
Veterans may also feel isolated. “Some of the veterans are living in our hills here, in our mountains, and they don’t come down to the city, except maybe to buy food,” he says.
Richard Dykstra, a friend of Boettcher’s, talks about his combat experiences in Iraq and waking up with back-to-back nightmares. “I don’t know what to do about all that,” he says.
At the barn, Dykstra takes a chestnut mare called Abby out to a large corral. Boettcher leads a gentle bay named Artemis. It’s a sunny spring morning and the horses sniff the scent of new green grass on the hills.
Aguirre and Wingard walk alongside the men, offering suggestions and helping them connect with the horses through voice and touch.
Even small steps can be significant. “It’s an amazing feat when you’re able to lead a 1,000-pound animal,” Aguirre says. “When a horse joins up with you, that’s huge. So there’s metaphors there, are you watching my back?"
Wingard says the horses model calming down. The horses may be on alert but will return to a calm state called grazing.
“That’s what we want them to be able to do after a nightmare,” she says of the veterans.
It’s not the only behavior the horses model. Wingard suggests letting the horses loose. They roll on the ground, kicking their hooves in the air and snorting. They’re doing self-care, she tells the vets. “Sometimes they’ll demonstrate it for people,” says Wingard.
Watching Abby enjoy the spring freedom, Dykstra frowns. He starts to talk about Iraq.
“Yeah, these dreams are just killing me these last couple days,” he says. “I’ve been really drained. I was in the infantry when I was on active duty so I saw a lot of frontline bloodshed. It’s been pretty rough for me. It’s just a lot of bloodshed.”
“And maybe there’s grief,” Wingard says. “Sometimes if you wake up with a feeling of grief you can just put your hands over your heart.”
Wingard teaches him some breathing techniques she learned from a Native American healer.
“When you’re waking up from a dream, get grounded, take a deep breath,” she explains to Dykstra. “Go through the date in your mind. ‘I’m on my bed, that was then, this is now.’ You can touch your wife’s hand, get grounded with her, too.”
“OK, I’ll try it,” Dykstra says. “I’m going to take your guys’ advice because so far everything I’ve done here, working with Abby and stuff, it’s really helped at home,” he says. “I haven’t been keeping things bottled up. There’s no bickering or tension in the house anymore, so things have really helped working with Abby and us talking.”
Boettcher agrees. “Working with the horses and especially Artemis, because she’s stubborn like I am, I just think it’s helped a lot,” he says.
The vets and the therapists stand for a moment, taking in the sunshine.
Wingard heads off to put the horses into a nearby field, and the men reluctantly say goodbye to the horses.