Federal government to fund horse therapy for injured veterans
The Harper government is taking another step towards mending strained relations with veterans by funding equine therapy for those suffering mental scars from the battlefield.
Sources tell CTV News that Ottawa will soon cover costs of the therapy for injured veterans who qualify for the program.
Veterans Affairs Minister says one of the last remaining hurdles is creating nationwide standards for the programs which bring veterans together with horses as a form of healing.
"So that if stables, whether they're in the west or the east, if they get into this program, we build them in a way that has the benefit of equine therapy alongside the work of clinical psychologists," Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole told CTV News
A $25,000 pilot study launched by Ottawa two years ago followed seven couples and found significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, along with anxiety and anger levels in those who participated in the program.
For veterans dealing with the scars left behind from military service, the memories are often too painful to discuss in traditional forms of counselling. But sometimes they need a friend, a companion, someone to spend time with as a means of coping with their PTSD.
That's where equine therapy comes in -- a form of treatment that helps mentally injured veterans connect with horses in order to, in turn, connect with their own feelings and hurts.
Sgt. Graham Ridley, a soldier who returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD, made a major breakthrough after just two weeks in the War Horse program.
"I don't even know what we were talking about or what we were doing that day but I went home and sat on my back porch and sobbed for like four hours, I couldn't even explain it, it was just this overwhelming emotion and I just cried like a school girl, and it felt great," Ridley said.
Spending time with Rocky, Ridley said, helps control his anxiety, depression, and helps unlock the internal hurt that is normally hidden away from the world and even from Ridley himself because it is simply too painful to deal with.
But he has also learned to control the way he reacts to stressful situations, through his experiences working with the horses.
"If you can learn to control this guy or one like him, because they have a mind of their own, because they're so big and they move, it's a powerful tool to show you can control yourself," he said.
Ridley is one of dozens healing through the War Horse program. Master-Corporal Pierre Gauthier has long felt suicidal and unable to cope with the memories he brought back from the battlefield.
But spending time with Dakota -- walking and grooming him -- has changed everything, he says. In fact, his involvement with the program saved his life.
"I was on 16 types of different meds, I had depression and this and that. Since I started the War Horse program I'm down to five," he said. "I've got less stress, I'm more interested in life."
In fact, Gauthier is retiring from the military next year with an early medical release, and plans to buy a farm and horses of his own -- the connection is that strong.
Gauthier and Ridley spend time with Dakota and Rocky at a ranch near CFB-Petawawa in the Pembroke area. And there are others across the country.
In all locations, demand is growing -- largely because soldiers are coming home with wounds that aren't always visible to the eye, and which often come with stigma and shame attached.
Alison Vandergragt, the War Horse program director, said the programs are meeting the need.
"Every day I get a phone call, every day I get an email from a wife saying my husband needs help, what can you do for him?" she said.
It's unclear if the therapy produces lasting results, but Ridley hopes other troubled veterans can get access to the program, he says, saved his life.