Canadian soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are learning to escape horrifying reminders of their past by zeroing in on the present — with therapy horses as their teachers. The program, though, is at risk of shutting down because of a lack of financial support, including from the military. This story originally appeared in the London Free Press.
A helicopter flies across an eastern Ontario blue sky, and Master Cpl. Roger Boudreau is suddenly transported back to the dirt roads of Afghanistan, moving body bags onto a Chinook military chopper.
A 19-year military veteran, the former Londoner never thought those war images would still haunt him.
The memories at first were so vivid he believed he was back in Afghanistan and in great danger. For soldiers like him, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even the smell of burning grass or the sight of a well-done steak can trigger such flashbacks.
Boudreau, 49, now living in Petawawa, fell through the cracks. Not until he found solace through horse therapy, on a Pembroke-area farm, did he start to feel like himself again.
But getting there wasn’t easy.
“I couldn’t control my anger. I would have fits of rage for no reason and I’d be throwing stuff around, yelling and screaming,” he says.
It wasn’t until the afternoon his wife left him that he understood he needed help.
“ ‘I love you but I don’t like you anymore,’ ” she whispered to him as she left, luggage in hand.
Boudreau was diagnosed with PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that can occur after traumatic events. Depression and suicide thoughts are among its symptoms.
Posted in Afghanistan’s dangerous Kandahar province, Boudreau said he saw fellow soldiers killed by Taliban insurgents. Among them was his best friend, 39-year-old Trooper Mark Wilson of London.
Boudreau, who’s being medically released from the military, said traditional therapy didn’t work for him. It was like banging his head against a wall.
“When he came back from Afghanistan, he was suicidal. I was panicking. I didn’t want to lose my son,” says his mother, Londoner Dianne Boudreau.
Boudreau had been seeing a psychologist before he heard of the War Horse Project in the small Ottawa Valley city of Pembroke. The volunteer-run project pairs wounded soldiers with horses, to help them heal. “Horses live in that particular moment. They don’t worry about what you did yesterday. They worry about what you’re doing now,” Boudreau says.
Those with PTSD are often stuck in the harrowing past, said Alison Vandergragt, a Pembroke-area woman who brought the War Horse Project to life, using a volunteer team and relying on donations.
Participants like Boudreau get together once a week outside a barn on a range, tucked away behind large green trees. They startle the herd of horses to gauge their reaction by shaking plastic bags near them. It’s a way for the wounded soldiers to learn from the horses: The animals are scared at first and trot away, but soon realize they’re in no danger.
Just like a flashback, soldiers can understand they’re not actually in danger, either, Boudreau says.
“The horses are actually teaching us to come out of the past and back into the present.”
While the military doesn’t help pay for Vandergragt’s projects, veterans and others praise efforts such as hers that help traumatized soldiers through unconventional therapy.
Laura McIntyre, a National Defence spokesperson, said that while the Canadian Armed Forces “welcome any initiative which seeks to alleviate the suffering of our ill and injured,” it “does not prescribe equine therapy as a treatment, nor does it provide funding for these types of programs at this time.
“We recognize that PTSD and other injuries and illnesses sometimes require complex and creative systems of care and support,” she added.
In Afghanistan, 138 Canadian soldiers were killed during Canada’s 12-year combat mission that ended in 2012. Over roughly the same period, suicide claimed the lives of 160, according to National Defence figures.
Horses are different from animals such as dogs and cats because they’re not predators but prey, says Morrigan Reilly-Ansons, a London clinical counsellor.
“That means they approach the world differently. They approach it always with the No. 1 question: ‘Am I safe’? And that makes them really in tune with their environment.
“And when we’re in it, that makes them really in tune with us as well.”
Riding the horses is an important part of the project, which tries to help soldiers find inner peace and social interaction.
But the 16-week program, now about a year old, is struggling to stay on its feet. Vandergragt says she’s had to pay some expenses herself.
The biggest costs are maintaining the facility and the horses, and having a therapist on board.
So far, 36 soldiers have completed the program.
“Something really special is happening here and we refuse to let money be the piece that holds us back,” says Vandergragt, a former St. Catharines resident who has worked with horses for 15 years.
The program, held on a farm near Pembroke, costs $16,000 a session to run for 10 participants. So far, Vandergragt and her team have put in 1,800 volunteer hours.
Boudreau says he’s made so much progress since joining the project he doesn’t want to see it end.
“If this project dies, there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to miss out on some really, really good therapy,” he says.
“He’s made a beautiful comeback,” his mother says. “And I don’t have to worry every night that I’ll get that phone call with bad news.”
Boudreau says he hopes other veterans get the chance to take the program.
“It’s incredible how far I’ve come in such a short time.”
What: Post-traumatic stress disorder, often associated with traumatic events.
Symptoms: Re-experiencing trauma; flashbacks and nightmares; self-imposed isolation; depression, anxiety and potentially suicidal thoughts.
Typical treatment: No cure, but typical therapy involves counselling by psychologist or psychiatrist.
Who is prone to it: It can happen to anyone who experiences a traumatic event
WHAT OTHERS SAY
“Equestrian therapy seems to be actually bringing some rather positive results to those suffering from the mental anguishes they are feeling with their time in service. Maybe the army thinks it’s a little unorthodox and they don’t want to fund it, but at the end of the day we have to look at what is producing the results.”
— Bruce Moncur of Windsor, Afghanistan war veteran and veterans’ advocate
“Even though they are big and powerful animals, they also have this vulnerability. They also don’t worry about who kicked who yesterday, which really relates to people. They are very much a grounding source for people, which is really helpful for people with PTSD. Anything that pulls them back in the present moment, especially because people with PTSD have issues around control.”
— Morrigan Reilly-Ansons, London clinical mental health counsellor
“Animals have this sixth sense to them. They are very good at being able to comfort somebody where another human being isn’t able to. Horses are very empathic animals. They can sense your emotions and they don’t like it when somebody is upset.”
— Nicole Field, co-ordinator, Thames Centre Service Dogs
A SECRET WAR
Here is a trailer of Secret War, a documentary that examines PTSD and the struggle to find peace.
Directed by Emanuela Campanella, Fanglian Xu, and produced by Shannon Lough and Sarah Turnbull.
Q & A with Alison Vandergragt, founder of the War Horse Project
Q: What inspired you to start the War Horse Project?
I experienced a significant personal loss. I lost two family members in a car accident. That’s when the shift happened, when I realized that horses had therapeutic value. I then researched and found people were actually using horses as a therapeutic tool.
Q: How have you found equine therapy has helped soldiers?
It varies greatly between each individual. Some of our clients are able to revisit and put to rest some of the things they’ve experienced. Some are not willing to do so, but are just looking to move forward. So it’s a very personal journey for each one and no two journeys are the same.
Q: Do you have a military connection?
My grandfather was a World War Two veteran. You didn’t speak to him or ask anything about the war. You were forbidden. . . . And then when I started working in long-term care facilities and making the connections between certain aggressive behaviours and the fact that a lot of them were veterans, it really struck me that, ‘Wow, what happened so many years ago left them so damaged.’ ”
Q: Have you done similar work with horses before?
Before the War Horse Project, we’ve been doing programming for youth at risk. When we worked with our local mental health group, the Phoenix Centre, a lot of the clients we were seeing were military families. And while we were there, working with the children, quite often, in sessions something was identified. There was something about mom or dad, and we called that the elephant in the arena because it was the thing we could not talk about — and that was a traumatic injury.
Q: How do you finance the project?
We started last year strictly on volunteer hours. We banked about 1,800 volunteer hours to get the program up and running. Then, private donations have started to trickle in. It’s always a battle. We don’t know where the next program will be funded.
Q: What has the military said about the program?
We don’t have any feedback from anyone official yet. I sent a letter about what we were doing, and it’s you know, ‘Thanks, but it doesn’t fit the criteria.’ But on a local level, I have a lot of support.
Q: What’s next for the War Horse Project?
You’re going to ask me to start dreaming now. The next thing is to expand the facility so that we can be available to veterans six days a week.