Why do people with ptsd and with traumatic backgrounds or hard to deal with situations, which could be more a statement of weakness rather than extraordinary circumstances, connect better with horses than therapists? This claim is made on this Hooves for Heroes video.
Someone in another video said it was about feeling out of control of their environment and then being in control of a horse. Taken to the extreme, this can sound like revenge. Feeling the need to control with blind allegiance is unhealthy. But I think there is something to feeling controlled against one’s will, perhaps made to do things they didn’t agree with in the military, and then turning the tables and being the one the horse looks to for leadership. If one was made to submit against one’s will, one should not seek to do the same with a horse. This can lead to abusive training. But if one is respectful and trustworthy, then those under him want to be a part of it in an ordered fashion. PTSD is from trauma caused by the violence of war. Training a horse should not be violent, though there are “aids” such as a whip that are considered punitive. The horse doesn’t like the sound of a cracked whip so he tries to avoid it. When he knows his job, the waved whip becomes more like sign language that doesn’t have to actually touch the horse.
I think perhaps the veterans identify with the trained horse. Horses have a very developed anxious flight, instead of fight, reaction. So do ptsd sufferers. Trained therapeutic horses do not react as skittishly to unexpected things as untrained horses. They willingly submit to the soldier. I think this submission and affection to a traumatized soldier is what makes him feel the connection and causes a pretty emotional therapeutic reaction. One of the soldiers in another video couldn’t believe the horse came up to him when he got there and wanted him to ride him. A traumatized soldier is conditioned that work will be dangerous to him or his comrades, and so he wants to flee, but he is not allowed. To have a horse peacefully be affectionate and willing when showing up for duty is just what he needs to help him relax.
Why isn’t a therapist able to accomplish this? Because the therapist is the boss and the authority to whom the soldier has a negative response. The boss tells you to do self-destructive things.
So why isn’t a wife’s peaceful affection enough? Because she has more of a fight impulse than a flight impulse when she’s troubled? The traumatized soldier when confronted with a fight will feel that his survival is threatened and will respond in kind, if this hasn’t been too exhausted. Or he will become despondent. Or flee. She expects him to meet her needs. A horse’s desires are much more easily granted. He doesn’t want much conversation, he’s content to just graze in the pasture all day, with at least weekly workouts, ideally. He doesn’t get upset if he doesn’t have even that, at least not confrontationally, as long as he has enough food and water, which the stable owner provides. Wives need much more than that. A soldier is so traumatized by too intense interaction, that he doesn’t want much interaction. A calm horse just standing there breathing is loud enough. His size makes one’s own problems seem smaller. His warmth and softness are soothing. His strength makes one feel taken care of. He can handle you. And he knows how you feel. All animals have an amazing ability to sense how people feel. This is why dogs and cats will lay next to you when you’re sick.
But what if the horse is traumatized. I think it’s pretty clear that animals can have ptsd too. Just observe their behavior at an animal shelter. I suppose a certain amount of healing has to occur in a person with ptsd to handle an animal still suffering from ptsd so that the person is not traumatized by flight reactions. He has to overcome his own flight and even fight reactions to deal with that. But I think his discovering what makes him calm down will help him make the animal calm down and then that success will further his own healing. This is how Buck, the Horse Whisperer, lives in the documentary movie, Buck, I discussed a while back. From wikipedia, ”
- “Others have falsely claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world.” –Nicholas Evans
The publicity from the book and movie, along with Brannaman’s approach to treating troubled horses and troubled humans with equal doses of compassion, has helped promote other fields such as therapeutic horseback riding. In that context, Brannaman has noted, “Horses are incredibly forgiving. They fill in places we’re not capable of filling ourselves. They’ve given people a new hope, a new lease on life. A horse really wants to please you, to get along.” Brannaman lives with his wife, Mary, in Sheridan, Wyoming. He has three daughters.