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The Equus Effect

by Kathryn Boughton

Like prey animals, veterans are always on edge, always in a state of fight or flight. But the survival impulses that kept them alive on the battlefield do not translate well to life at home.

Many returning veterans have great difficulty transitioning to civilian life, but there are those who stand ready to help—some of them on four feet. In Sharon, veterans are learning how to rebuild healthy human relationships by first learning how to collaborate—but not forcefully dominate—horses.

The Equus Effect, established in 2012, works with small groups of veterans in five-week sessions to help them rebuild healthy relationships. “It’s having a tremendous impact on veterans,” said co-founder Jane Strong. “And it isn’t just, ‘I had great day at the farm’; it’s, ‘I came here and learned some techniques to not get upset and become so reactive.’”

“Their reactions are perfectly normal for combat, but they don’t work so well at home,” Strong continued. “Their families have been running their own show and they are not happy about being ordered around. Being reactive scares their kids. It’s not pleasant, so we teach them to manage their energy. Change how you are and you can change how people are around you.”

Strong and her partner and co-founder David Sonatore, a licensed clinical social worker, developed the program by integrating ideas from various other programs with their own take on what specifically works for veterans. Both studied at Eponaquest Program in Tucson, Arizona in 2005. Strong is a certified equine specialist in mental health and learning through P.A.T.H. International and an equine facilitated learning coach. Sonatore is an Experiential Learning with Horses instructor and they both graduated from the Somatic Experiencing Training Institute, which explores the neuroscience of why humans become traumatized.

“I’ve studied natural horsemanship techniques, which emphasize finesse, not force,” she said. “We chose things to study that are appropriate for veterans.”

What emerged from their studies is a method of working with veterans that expands their world and gives them more choices. “We found that veterans have a common characteristic in that they won’t do something for themselves. They will work in a group because that is similar to the military. They will do what you tell them to do, but when they have to act for themselves the world gets in the way.

“We found it is much better to get them involved in a five-week program—once a week—where they learn something about horses, about themselves and how to make choices in relationships that work,” she said. “One favorite question when they are frustrated with a horse is, ‘Where else does that show up in your life?’ Then we ask, ‘Do you want to learn another way to deal with this?’ Our objective is to teach vets that they have more choices.”

The program teaches the veterans to bond with horses through grooming, leading and other ground activities. Riding is not part of the Equus experience because, “with vets, we want them more in their bodies, present in the moment, collaborating with horses, to get them engaged through positive energy. Riding is a different skill that is harder to learn.”

Horses are used because they are prey animals. “Big cats and wolves would find a horse tasty and horses know that. They are very vigilant and can sense tension in your muscles or your heart rate from 30 feet away. When you are engaging horses, what is on the inside has to be the same as what you show outside. Until you get in the ranks of good horsemanship you are not moving them with your energy.”

Horses live in herds for safety, much like a military person. “Vets relate to that—their whole life is about being defensive and when a vet comes home, they feel like a prey animal because they don’t have weapons,” Strong said.

The vets are encouraged to interact with all the horses. “We like them to move among the horses so they deal with different personalities,” said Strong. “It’s not personal with one horse.”

The Sharon program is achieving success but now the founders must deal with sustainability. They are dedicated to providing the service to veterans free of charge and to date have depended on grants and private donations for funds. Now they are reaching out to other populations—from individuals’ kids who are heading off to college, to those with addictions and persons who have been in abusive relationships. “We hope we will get support for the vets’ tuition from other work. We need to do our part in making it sustainable,” Strong said.

“We’ve done this program with lots of people,” Strong said. “The treatment center people are different from veterans. They have learned manipulation, how to get around things and they give up easily. We have to teach them to be self-organized, to be more together and capable. The abused women have to learn to set boundaries without getting upset.”

They are also training facilitators in other locations. “We have to be where the vets are,” she said. “We would like to make this a national program. We’ve now trained 15 facilitators in four different states to do this.”

They trained one clinician who is an advocate for veteran centers and the Veterans Administration. “That is important because they will send people to us to train. She is a tremendous ally for us because it is really hard to get the VA and vet centers to make it happen on their end.”

Those who would like to help the organization continue its work can make tax deductible donations, 100 percent of which goes toward tuition for veterans: $12,000 to sponsor a class of six; $2,000 for one veteran; or a contribution toward the $150,000 needed to build a covered area where work can continue during bad weather. To learn more click on the link below, call 860-364-5363 or send a check to The Equus Effect, 37 Drum Road, Sharon, CT 06069.