Man O' War Project Important for Veterans & Horses
For centuries, the belief has existed that horses are good for the soul.
More recently that age-old adage has been put to the test by many programs that are using horses to help people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health disorders. Yet little, if any, research exists to demonstrate the benefits of equine therapy.
Now, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center are taking the next step, using scientific methods to quantify the effectiveness of using horses to provide a well-defined clinical treatment for war veterans that suffer from PTSD in a new program called The Man O' War Project.
“There are lots of wonderful programs out there that provide positive experiences for veterans,” said Anne Poulson, President of the Man O’ War Project. “The Man O’ War Project is different in that it is specifically designed to provide a clinical treatment alternative for veterans with PTSD. By applying a scientific approach, we hope to standardize treatment so that it can be distributed to equine therapy programs around the nation.”
The Man O’ War Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Columbia University Medical Center researchers in this first ever university-led research trial aimed specifically at veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
Founded by Ambassador Earle I. Mack, a veteran of the U.S. Army and avid racehorse aftercare advocate, the project will determine the effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Therapy for treating PTSD (EAT-PTSD) and establish manualized guidelines for the application of EAT-PTSD.
The program is taking place at the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia, N.J., and began last year. Approximately 60 veterans will go through the program by the end of the year to get a statistically valid sample for the study.
The Veteran & PTSD
PTSD is a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to traumatic events, such as warfare for veterans. Symptoms can include disturbing thoughts, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues and alterations to how a person thinks and feels. A person with PTSD is at a higher risk for suicide and intentional self-harm.
“Traditional ways of treating PTSD are not working for many reasons,” said Poulson. “We’re trying to become a strong alternative therapy that might work for some people, where another therapies like medication or traditional counseling have failed."
Man O’ War Project Co-Director Yuval Neria, Ph.D., is one of the leading researchers for the project. He is a Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, as well as Director of Trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
Neria said, “There is a real need to identify better treatment for PTSD in general, but veterans in particular. About half of the PTSD patients are not treated appropriately. Less than half are even seeking treatment to start with, because they are pessimistic about what they are going to find. Veterans really hate medication and they don’t like long psychotherapy. What we offer them here with Equine-Assisted Therapy, we have very few drop-outs, because horses provide a pleasant experience.”
In the Man O' War Project, named after the famous horse born 100 years ago, veterans receive not just one treatment session, but participate once a week for 8 weeks. Three to four veterans at a time work in the ring with two horses for 90-minutes each session. They also take care of and groom the animals.
Prudence Fisher, Ph.D., has been working with the veterans and is a Man O' War Project Co-Director, as well as Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatric Social Work at Columbia University Medical Center.
“The intervention that we are doing is manualized. It’s experiential, but within a structure," said Fisher. "It’s a team approach, where we have a licensed mental health professional, an equine specialist, and an extra person we call a wrangler for safety. It’s not a riding program. This is all on the ground. The sessions are progressive. It starts out with a tour of the facility and observing horses. The next seven sessions are 90-minutes in a ring with two horses. It’s a group approach for practical and scientific reasons.”
Working with the horses under the supervision of mental health professionals, veterans are able to understand themselves better and reacquire the life skills they need to live healthier and more productive lives.
Quantifying the Results
The program has been running for a few months and the research team has started to quantify the results.
“There really isn’t a standard way people are using Equine-Assisted Therapy,” said Fisher. “There is very little research at all if it works. There are a lot of anecdotal reports that it seems to work. Since we are a department of Psychiatry, we know how to do research projects and the first step we had to do was to define what we were researching.”
Patients are screened throughout the program to asses how they are coming along during and after the sessions.
“We assess the patients before, during and after the program twice. We make sure to assess the patient not only at the end of the treatment, but also after three months to make sure we have enough information about duration of change to see the long-term trajectory of the response to the treatment,” said Neria. “We also test for anxiety, depression and quality of life. We make sure we cover a range of changes, not only internally, but relationships with family and work functioning, etc.”
It’s early for the researchers to fully understand the results of the study, but initial signs are showing that the treatment is helping the veterans.
“What we are seeing again and again are that many of the patients are feeling liberty now and the energy to really engage better in their surroundings, as if there is a heavy load that used to be on their shoulders and they are getting rid of it. They feel more optimistic about the capacity to change their lives."
Full data analysis still needs to be competed, but the researchers are very optimistic about the results so far.
Currently three horses are being used for the program, including a thoroughbred named Crafty and another horse that was rescued. As the program expands, off-the-track thoroughbreds will be trained to become healers in the program.
“The plan is to find thoroughbreds that can be part of the program. The plan is to work with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) and others to identify horses that could work in these programs. We are very hopeful that this could be another use for (off-the-track) thoroughbreds,” said Poulson.
The relationship between horses to help heal veterans with PTSD may stem from the many commonalities that the two groups share.
“Horses and veterans have a shared basis. Horses are prey animals and they are very fearful of their surroundings. Their expertise is to identify and respond to threatening cues in the environment. This also is what’s going on with people with PTSD, especially veterans, who are coming back to post-deployment life.
Veterans are haunted and fearful, easily distracted and responding to cues that they deem to be threatening to them. This is something very much in common between veterans and horses. Once we understood that, we figured out what we could focus on for the treatment,” said Neria.
The Man O’ War Project’s funding is imperative at this stage of the project. After the initial testing is completed this year, the project is looking to expand to bring their results and manualized procedures to many programs throughout the country.
To help promote their cause, the Man O' War Project is sponsoring the Equestricon EQCON VIP Party on Sunday, August 13, kicking off the three-day horse racing lifestyle event in Saratoga Springs, New York.
As part of Equestricon, Neria and Fisher will be part of the "Aftercare Pathways" panels presented by TAA on Monday, August 14, 2017 from 2 to 4 p.m.
To learn more about the Man O' War Project and to donate, please visit https://mowproject.org/donate/