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Parallel Partners–Veterans and horses heal side by side

In the summer of 2018, the team at Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship received a letter from a combat veteran. He’d served three tours in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Tikrit. During his time in Iraq he’d been awarded three Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Medal with valor. As a result of his time in combat zones, he suffers from severe PTSD and, he wrote: “Because of these wounds, I held away from people and tried to not get close to anyone or anything.”

The veteran was working once a week with two clinical social workers at Endeavor—Laurie Ciavardini and Barbara Carbone—as part of an EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) program affiliated with the VA which treats veterans at the PTSD inpatient unit at the Montrose Veterans Hospital.

“This experience was nothing short of remarkable in every way,” he continued. “When I was there with the horses, I had to learn to be mindful, calm, steady, and smooth. We never got to learn the horse’s trauma, but we did get to learn their pain as they did ours.”

EAGALA is an innovative—and new to Endeavor—way of working with the severest cases of PTSD in the veteran community. It works so well, in part, because it’s not traditional talk therapy, clinicians say. It is group-focused, and the work is done through metaphor: a modality that works perfectly for traumatic injury, according to practitioners. EAGALA was founded in Utah by Lynn Thomas, a social worker, in 1999. It is now a global organization with over 2,500 certified members in 45 countries.

Twice a week at Endeavor, veterans arrive for equine-assisted therapy from both the PTSD Acute Inpatient Unit and the Homeless Veterans Domiciliary at the Montrose and Bronx VA hospitals. Combat veterans and horses might not seem to have much in common to the untrained eye, but Carbone and Ciavardini say the two groups actually share much, and it makes them likely therapeutic partners.

“The military culture has its own language, culture, and special needs,” says Ciavardini. “Even as therapists we need to know that language and have special training.” Both counselors were certified in 2013 by EAGALA and are, in addition, certified military counselors. Both are daughters of combat veterans. Combined they have five decades of experience working with trauma.

Carbone explains why talk therapy in this case is not always the go-to treatment for PTSD: “Oftentimes, individuals will project something different on the outside than what’s going on in the inside. The horses are such amazing, intuitive beings, they’re able to connect with individuals so that they are reflective about what’s going on inside.” Talking and re-living the trauma of, say, a fatal suicide bombing and its aftermath might not be the right path to recovery. Both therapists say they are keenly aware of “triggers”: sudden movements, loud noises, the sounds of airplanes or helicopters passing, a car backfiring.

The Purple Heart veteran’s letter continued: “As I worked beside Pearl, I could feel her every move, every breath, and every gaze. I learned how pain locked us… She and I were creatures of many levels, and thanks to her, I was able to breathe and clear my mind. For a combat veteran, it’s not easy to do this, and it can often be a struggle…I believe this program can help anyone who it touches and is a fantastic tool for a veteran’s recovery.”

Koko and John share a quiet moment at Endeavor.

The level of experience and knowledge being practiced by the team of 13 humans and 12 horses has made Endeavor both nationally and internationally recognized. They started working with children with special needs and have expanded to now treat other groups. In the five years since Endeavor was founded by Caroline Black and Emily Bushnell, the team has received awards of excellence in its field by PATH (The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International).

Of the specific challenges faced by combat veterans returning to civilian life, Ciavardini says: “We’re sending people out, training them how to kill people, and then they’re coming back, and we’re expecting them to assimilate back into culture and be fine. We have to really look at what we’re doing as a culture.”

And they, too, believe horses to be the most effective partners in the reintegration process?

Without missing a beat, she replies: “Yes, because they’re prey animals. And in a combat situation, veterans are prey, too. They both have to be hypervigilant and hypersensitive, operating on herd or team instincts. They’re constantly vigilant about the threats to their welfare in the environment around them. It’s a parallel experience.”


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