Horses helping treat PTSD in veterans and first responders

A blustering wind blows across the prairie into Martin Gendron’s stable as he conducts a riding session with his client Jason MacEachern.

The ranch, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but actually 30 minutes out of Medicine Hat, Alta., plays host to Gendron’s work as a social worker for former members of the Canadian military suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In a 90 minute session, the former soldier MacEachern works with Blossom — a 9 year-old quarter horse — through a series of breathing exercises and therapeutic riding sessions.

Gendron’s work is part of a new form of therapy using some of Alberta’s greatest resources, ample amounts of land, horses and Canada’s largest military training centre located in Medicine Hat. Retired military members in the region can take advantage of these resources to address the ghosts of their past.

Jason MacEachern’s mental health deteriorated after his second mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

MacEachern, who has suffered from PTSD for 30 years from difficult missions in Cambodia and Bosnia, finds the horses grounding.

“It’s living in the now. The horses live in the now,” he says. “And so for me to be living in the now is what I need to be doing, not the past. With PTSD, it brings you back a lot. So it’s it’s hard.”

After years of being untreated, he started with a psychologist before discovering horse-assisted therapy for veterans with PTSD.

“Going to see a psychologist or social workers, that works great sitting in the office, but I found this this stuff kind of helps me a little bit better,” he says.

PTSD survivors, he explains, are always in a fight or flight mode but with horses, he’s able to switch the parasympathetic nervous system into a state of relaxation.

Animals that soothe

More prey than predators, horses are evolutionarily good companions for exercises with a psychologist, Gendron says, because they can naturally can move on from stressful moments where they may have been prey.

“They release the bad energy they can keep going with just grazing and live their life,” he says.

“[The animals are] so big and we have to collaborate with them, it is something that we can connect with as a first responder and military veterans.”

Despite promising results, the social worker says science on the effectiveness of equines in treating PTSD remains thin with not enough research being done.

However, there have been some recent “optimistic” studies from a team of researchers from Boston College and the University of Suffolk, according to Gendron.

Three of Martin Gendron’s five horses that greet clients at the start of each session inside their enclosure. An attendee will get to choose the horse that they think will be the most natural fit to work with. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

In a 2017 study that observed three children aged 10 to 12 years old carrying complex traumas, the authors concluded equine facilitated therapy benefited the mental health of the children involved. Among other things, they noted a lowered level of anxiety, complaints, and behavioural deregulation.

A research assistant at the University of Alberta, Gendron hopes to advance the science in the field with more study study that will be released publicly in the future.

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