This program uses equine-assisted therapeutic activities to help veterans find peace of mind.
Many therapeutic programs are turning to the healing power of horses to help people who are struggling with physical, mental or emotional issues. One example is Fearless Victory, which uses partnership with horses as a way to offer veterans the means of overcoming the trauma of war, combat and other military trauma.
Why are horses such effective therapy animals?
Horses are always attuned to their bodily experiences, and because they are prey animals living in herds, they’re very aware of everything around them – every presence, every mood. Their minds are naturally alert to any changes in the environment. Without deception, pretense, scheming or agenda, horses are simply present and aware. They epitomize heightened consciousness. Their acute sensitivity is hardwired into their being and passed on from one generation to the next. It is what protects them – and it is also what makes them such great teachers and healers.
Horses can identify and interpret emotions, characteristics and intentions, not just in other animals, but in people too. Within the herd, one horse may lower his blood pressure and respiration, in turn calming the other horses if they have been frightened.
Horses can also have a calming effect on veterans. Equine-assisted therapy programs like Fearless Victory help veterans relax and shift towards a more peaceful state of being, opening and softening their hearts in the process.
Horses in equine-assisted therapy programs help veterans relax and shift towards a more peaceful state of being, opening and softening their hearts in the process.
Where mindfulness meets horse therapy
Fearless Victory is a unique program and therapeutic resource for veterans and their families. It’s a collaboration between the Veterans’ Peace of Mind Project and the Medicine Horse Program, and offers an equine-assisted psychotherapeutic program for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition many veterans live with following experiences of war, combat and other military trauma. The program offers an innovative two-pronged approach that combines mindfulness training and techniques with equine-assisted therapy.
- Participants first engage in mindfulness-based training and activities. These techniques might include secular sitting meditation, walking, intent listening, and observing sensory sights, sounds and smells.
- This mindfulness is then brought into equine-related activities such as observing horse behavior, grooming, training and riding horses. For example, a favorite exercise is to sit on a horse with a bareback pad, and with eyes closed, feel the horse’s breathing with your legs. The horse is then led forward, providing a sense of your bodies moving together as a unit. Another favorite is to wrap your arms around the horse to feel his breathing, and even sync your own breath with it; in the winter, this exercise offers the added benefit and comfort of feeling the horse’s body warmth.
Mustang rescues are used in the program
The horses at Fearless Victory are Mustang rescues. In the US, Mustangs are rounded up by helicopter (a controversial practice, but regarded by many as necessary). They may become separated from their family units while their freedom is lost and their lives forever changed. Veterans find interacting with these horses particularly moving and relevant.
The name “Fearless Victory” not only describes the program, but also what it has accomplished. When we rescued a little Mustang filly to be our mascot, she was just four months old, malnourished, sick, and separated from her mother. We weren’t sure she would even live. She became a special project for the veterans, who were given the responsibility of naming her. They wanted her name to reflect meditation as well as the military. For meditation, they chose the name “Fearless” because of the courage it takes to begin working with the problems that have plagued them for so long. For the military, they chose the name “Victory” because our filly rescue overcame her trauma and survived.
For the next several years, Fearless Victory was the veterans’ pride and joy. They played a large role in her training. She grew to be strong and beautiful, was very trusting, and completely happy to be with humans.
About three years later, we felt it was time to rescue another mustang as a special project for the veterans. We took a field trip to the prison in Canon City, Colorado, where Mustangs are kept when they’re rounded up. The prison inmates take care of the horses, and tame some to varying extents. It’s a highly sought-after job in the prison, the privilege of which is lost if an inmate cannot control his anger. Needless to say, this is a very effective means of emotional regulation.
For the sum of $125 each, we purchased two six-month-old colts. Again, it was time for the veterans to choose names for their new mascots, and again they chose names signifying meditation and the military. To reflect the evolution of their journey to peace, the veterans named the little black pony Quiet Valor, and the bay colt Gentle Warrior. Even though the veterans didn’t have much past experience with horses, the program’s mindfulness-in-action activities revolved around them helping the young horses overcome their fear of humans and to gain trust. This, in and of itself, is beneficial mind training for trauma.
Fearless Victory – Healing for veterans
For seven years, the Fearless Victory program has been offered to veterans free of charge. We have helped Vietnam vets, Gulf War vets, and Afghanistan vets, as well as veterans who are victims of military sexual trauma. Most, if not all, have little prior experience with horses, so the moment they are introduced to the Mustangs is very special to them.
- On one occasion, a young man arrived in a particularly bad mood. He recognized immediately that he would have to change his state of mind in order to work with the horses, and was surprised to find that he was able to do it, right then and there.
- Another time, an Afghanistan vet got on a horse and was asked to practice mindfulness while paying attention to the horse’s breathing as well as his own. “It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed, indicating that it was an intensely visceral experience, and one that felt especially powerful for him.
- A marine who has been deployed to Iraq several times, beginning in 2003, and who is also licensed social worker at the Veterans Administration, said that Fearless Victory is a wonderful program because: “You don’t have to talk about anything unless you want to, but it’s still healing.”
- Some veterans have remained in the program for the entire seven years, so we’ve been able to witness some remarkable changes in them. One female soldier commented again and again that it has changed her life. From the moment she first received meditation instruction, she sensed that a very different approach to her life was at hand. She came to love the horses, and each week came out at least half an hour early so she could visit them all, especially “our boys” Valor and Warrior.
- Recently, a Vietnam-era vet joined our group. He suffered from depression and anxiety, along with a lot of survivor’s guilt. But the second he was with the horses, he was almost overwhelmed with lightness. “When I arrived today, I was really down, and now I feel completely better,” he said. “I feel cheerful. I don’t want to leave.” He adds that he feels this change every single time he is with the horses.
“You don’t have to talk about anything unless you want to, but it’s still healing.”
How does mindfulness help people dealing with trauma?
A number of studies have revealed the value of mindfulness for reducing stress, and improving health and emotional well-being. The simple practice of grounding yourself in the present moment using mindfulness techniques allows you to develop emotional steadiness instead of reactivity, and to release the struggle with conflicted thoughts and feelings. Working with horses is a powerful way to accomplish being present – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Programs like Fearless Victory create a therapeutic community that addresses the wounds of war and other military trauma, with the invaluable and priceless assistance of horses. Veterans acquire new tools for working with their mental states in a supportive and healthy environment, thereby cultivating the seeds for inner peace.