Study to evaluate horse therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder

A new study aims to assess the effectiveness and safety of horse-assisted therapy in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans.

The new study is recruiting at least 60 veterans with clinically diagnosed PTSD.

The work, by researchers from Columbia University’s Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, is being conducted in Bergen County, New Jersey.

“Horses, like people, are highly social animals who are sensitive to the emotional states of others,” says Prudence Fisher, PhD, associate professor of clinical psychiatric social work (in psychiatry) and co-lead investigator of the study.

“In addition to being patient, horses are prey animals that are known for their hypervigilance toward potential dangers — just like people with PTSD. We think that horses may reflect back some of the emotions that patients with PTSD are experiencing.”

An estimated 14 to 30 percent of veterans are at risk of developing PTSD.

Standard treatments, such as exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, are hindered by high drop-out and low efficacy rates.

Although horse therapy is widely used to treat children and adults with a variety of mental health problems, including PTSD, there is little data on its effectiveness.

Yuval Neria, professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry and epidemiology) and head of the university’s research program into the disorder, says: “Anecdotally, using horses has shown some promise in treating a range of mental health problems, such as PTSD and depression.

“However, therapy programs that use horses are not standardized and are highly variable in both content and delivery, so we haven’t been able to determine if it is truly effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and depression.”

Participants undergo eight weekly therapy sessions at the Bergen County Equestrian Center in Leonia, New Jersey. The patients are treated in small groups that are led by a mental health therapist and an equine therapy specialist. A horse expert, or “wrangler,” is present to ensure safety while patients groom and feed the animals.

Assessments are performed before, during, and after therapy to determine if the therapy increased the patients’ resilience and ability to control PTSD symptoms.

If the findings are promising, the researchers hope to conduct additional studies to compare the efficacy of the horse therapy with other PTSD treatments and to examine whether this type of treatment is associated with structural and functional changes in the brain.

Dr Fisher says: “We hope that this therapy will enable veterans to recognize a little bit of themselves in the horses, and that this ability to identify with the animals will help them learn to regulate their own emotions when they are not faced with danger.”

The study is funded by a donation from the Earle Mack Foundation to the Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene.

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