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Partnership uses equine therapy to help veterans and others with PTSD

A new partnership in Abilene seeks to provide local veterans support through equine-assisted therapy, a form of mental health care that uses horses to guide patients through therapeutic sessions.

Jacob Greenlief served in the marine corps before sustaining severe injuries in a helicopter crash during training. Like many veterans, Greenlief has post traumatic stress disorder. He says he lives with symptoms like anxiety and emotional detachment, “We learned to block off the feelings and feed off of the adrenaline and feed off of the unknown, and living in that high anxiety, that high stress."

After the accident, Greenlief says he tried many different forms of therapy in an effort to ease his symptoms. In 2017, two years after the helicopter crash, Greenlief enrolled in an equine-assisted therapy program in Kansas.

People in equine-assisted therapy either ride horses or interact with them on the ground as a way to help them process complex emotions and memories, “You can't fake it with a horse. It is a mirror. If you're giving anger, they're gonna meet you with anger. One way or the other, you're gonna get a very big reaction from the horse and it's gonna show you that you have to calm down.”

Horses are fight-or-flight prey animals, meaning they are highly aware of their surroundings as a survival tactic. Steve Eller, a counselor at Abilene Christian University, says that means horses are observant and will mirror the energy or emotions they are sensing, “We're using the horse as sometimes a co-therapist, to help say things that people are tired of hearing from humans. But it's better to pick up on what the horse is suggesting.”

Eller has been integrating horses into his practice for nearly 15 years, and says he has seen the model be particularly helpful for patients with PTSD. The horses help patients let down their guard and allow them to come to their own conclusions about their emotional experiences, rather than hear the same things over and over again from a therapist.

“I just use their words and come back and say, ‘How does this play in your story?’ Or, ‘What does this represent in your story?’ That's why it's so interesting and fun to be a part of this because the person actually finds their solutions themselves,” said Shaley Griffin, owner of Aspiring Champions. Her for-profit equine-assisted therapy program is based in Abilene. Griffin is an equine specialist, certified in the Eagala model for equine-assisted therapy. That means patients work with horses entirely on the ground, rather than riding them.

During her sessions, Griffin talks the patients through their observations of the horses, and helps them come up with metaphors to describe what they are seeing on a deeper level, pointing out things like which horses stand away from the rest of the herd in the arena, and how the patient might sometimes feel alone, “I just help guide them through their own story.”

Griffin began her program about a year ago by offering her services to victims of human trafficking and women coming out of prison. She recently partnered with the local organization Military Veteran Peer Network to start helping veterans.

To better serve veterans as the program grows, Griffin would like to find a mental health professional to help out, and partner with a local nonprofit equine-assisted therapy program for people with special needs.