Equine Therapy Helps Withdrawn Vets Re-Connect

Instructor: Horses Don't Judge Like People

When war follows soldiers home, they can suddenly find themselves struggling with post traumatic stress disorder.

“They become isolated socially and financially,” said therapist Robert Froug, of the Aurora Mental Health Center.

Froug and Sarah Avrin, the center’s director for the developmentally disabled program, are working with some vets who have ended up homeless.

They’re trying to help the men, who have withdrawn from society, reconnect using equine transitional therapy.

“We use horses as a tool because they are such majestic creatures,” said Paula Quillen, an instructor at Coventry Farms.

In order to understand how horses can help vets, you have to understand what the vets are going through.

“They come back horribly, horribly scarred from what they’ve seen, and rather than talk about it, which is re-traumatizing, it’s easier to just shut down emotionally,” Froug said.

“It was the best time of my life and the worst time of my life,” said Iraq war veteran Robert Burge. “The best times were building schools and hospitals. The worst times were going to Arlington (National Cemetery) to say goodbye to friends."

For Iraq war vet Andrew Lubbers, the worst times were the roadside bombs.

“It did affect me but it took awhile to realize. It was a little rough," said Lubbers.

Froug said one of the vets was so traumatized by improvised explosive devices that he couldn’t bear to look outside the van windows on the way to Coventry Farms, because his experience was re-triggered seeing all the trash bags alongside the roadway.

“They turn inward and start to avoid people,” Froug said.

“Their experiences are so intense and sometimes so traumatic, that it’s hard to relate to other people, their values and priorities,” Avrin added.

That’s where the horses come in.

The vets are assigned a horse and are instructed how to take care of it.

They wipe down its coat, clean its hooves and walk it around.

“Horses are great therapeutic tools because they are neutral,” Avrin said. “A relationship with an animal is a lot easier than with a person, because the animal won’t judge them.”

Quillen told 7NEWS that the vets get to be themselves around the horses.

“They don’t have to look over their shoulder to see who’s watching them,” Quillen added.

The vets eventually learn how to ride the horses.

The therapists say the men also learn to let the horses do the reacting to loud noises and other distractions, which helps relieve the vets own hyper-vigilance.

“Coming out here is like an escape from everything else,” said Don Greever, a Vietnam-era vet. "When I first started here, I had major depression. I’ve gone from wanting to die to this is fun.”

Teddy Julien, another Iraq war vet, said working with a 1,000 pound animal is not easy, but to him it’s important.

“I have to get out of my comfort zone in order to move on with my life, and I have to move on with my life,” Julien said.

When asked if the therapy works, Froug said, “We can’t measure this by psychological tests. We can’t measure this in statistical outcome measures, but we know. All we have to do is look at the smiles on their faces. That’s how we know it works.”

These four vets have become so comfortable working with horses and encouraging each other that they now volunteer at Coventry Farms to help young children learn how to ride.

“I love seeing the smiles on their faces,” Greever said.

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