Over the last year

Horses used to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder

Using horses to help heal the hurting is the modus operandi of Can Praxis. Thanks to a huge contribution announced last week, the specialized program using horses to soothe some of those most in pain — veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder — will be able to be accessed by more veterans in 2014.

Using horses to help heal the hurting is the modus operandi of Can Praxis. Thanks to a huge contribution announced last week, the specialized program using horses to soothe some of those most in pain — veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder — will be able to be accessed by more veterans in 2014.

The program, which operates at Jim Marland’s ranch northeast of Rocky Mountain House, started last March and since then over 70 veterans have attended the sessions held so far.

Last year, Wounded Warriors Canada provided $10,000 in funding for the program’s 2013 operations.

Last week, the veterans charity that focuses on the mental health of current and former troops, made a far bigger donation to the program — $150,000.

The issue of mental health and the military has come to the fore in recent months, after a spate of suicides of personnel in a short time frame.

Marland, who has experience in equine therapy, runs the initiative with Steve Critchley, a professional mediator who spent 28 years in the military.

Through the programs, veterans spend three days at Marland’s ranch with their spouses, partners, or another loved one, where they get theoretical and practical instruction to help mend broken relationships.

Horses are the centrepiece of the healing efforts. In one exercise, veterans and loved ones are to lead the creatures around a simple obstacle course.

“The reason we use horses is, as an animal of prey, over the years they got very good at recognizing if another animal coming towards them is a friend or a foe. So they read our body language in the same way, instantly.

“Maybe there’s some stress and tension and the horse recognizes it immediately and sometimes, for example, the horse might stop,” said Marland.

“That’s an invitation to ask ‘Where’s the stress; what’s happening?’ It’s very easy for people to respond to that kind of question because the horse is the teacher. The horse is telling them something’s changed that’s not quite right and it’s less threatening than some professor saying ‘You’ve made a mistake.’”

Marland said people often come nervous and skeptical, but leave after the three days with new insights and connections with other veterans going through the same issues.

Spouses and loved ones attend so that they too can better understand what their partners are going through and how they can contribute to a healthier relationship.

“The essence of it isn’t to come to Rocky Mountain House and play with ponies. The essence is to experience the exercises and realize what they’re learning in the horse arena so they can take it home to the human arena,” he said.

Veterans from across the country attend the sessions for free at present, and Marland said he and Critchley are looking at offering the program to first responders who may suffer from PTSD as well.

He and Critchley also plan to offer other horse-based opportunities for veterans, including teaching them how to ride horses and taking them on pack rides in the mountains.

Veterans Affairs Canada contributed $50,000 last year to fund a scientific study of the equine therapy program, said Marland, the results of which will be published in the Canadian Military Journal in the spring.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com

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