Soldier's PTSD Harnessed by Horses Image for Blog Post

Soldier’s PTSD Harnessed by Horses

Canadian soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are learning to escape horrifying reminders of their past by zeroing in on the present — with therapy horses as their teachers. The program, though, is at risk of shutting down because of a lack of financial support, including from the military. Emanuela Campanella reports.

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A helicopter flies across an eastern Ontario blue sky, and Master Cpl. Roger Boudreau is suddenly transported back to the dirt roads of Afghanistan, moving body bags onto a Chinook military chopper.

A 19-year military veteran, the former Londoner never thought those war images would still haunt him.

The memories at first were so vivid he believed he was back in Afghanistan and in great danger. For soldiers like him, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even the smell of burning grass or the sight of a well-done steak can trigger such flashbacks.

Boudreau, 49, now living in Petawawa, fell through the cracks. Not until he found solace through horse therapy, on a Pembroke-area farm, did he start to feel like himself again.

But getting there wasn’t easy.

“I couldn’t control my anger. I would have fits of rage for no reason and I’d be throwing stuff around, yelling and screaming,” he says.

It wasn’t until the afternoon his wife left him that he understood he needed help.

“I love you but I don’t like you anymore,” she whispered to him as she left, luggage in hand.

Boudreau was diagnosed with PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that can occur after traumatic events. Depression and suicide thoughts are among its symptoms.

Posted in Afghanistan’s dangerous Kandahar province, Boudreau said he saw fellow soldiers killed by Taliban insurgents. Among them was his best friend, 39-year-old Trooper Mark Wilson of London.

Boudreau, who’s being medically released from the military, said traditional therapy didn’t work for him. It was like banging his head against a wall.

“When he came back from Afghanistan, he was suicidal. I was panicking. I didn’t want to lose my son,” says his mother, Londoner Dianne Boudreau.

Boudreau had been seeing a psychologist before he heard of the War Horse Project in the small Ottawa Valley city of Pembroke. The volunteer-run project pairs wounded soldiers with horses, to help them heal. “Horses live in that particular moment. They don’t worry about what you did yesterday. They worry about what you’re doing now,” Boudreau says.

Those with PTSD are often stuck in the harrowing past, said Alison Vandergragt, a Pembroke-area woman who brought the War Horse Project to life, using a volunteer team and relying on donations.

Participants like Boudreau get together once a week outside a barn on a range, tucked away behind large green trees. They startle the herd of horses to gauge their reaction by shaking plastic bags near them. It’s a way for the wounded soldiers to learn from the horses: The animals are scared at first and trot away, but soon realize they’re in no danger.

Just like a flashback, soldiers can understand they’re not actually in danger, either, Boudreau says.

“The horses are actually teaching us to come out of the past and back into the present.”

While the military doesn’t help pay for Vandergragt’s projects, veterans and others praise efforts such as hers that help traumatized soldiers through unconventional therapy.

Laura McIntyre, a National Defence spokesperson, said that while the Canadian Armed Forces “welcome any initiative which seeks to alleviate the suffering of our ill and injured,” it “does not prescribe equine therapy as a treatment, nor does it provide funding for these types of programs at this time.

“We recognize that PTSD and other injuries and illnesses sometimes require complex and creative systems of care and support,” she added.

In Afghanistan, 138 Canadian soldiers were killed during Canada’s 12-year combat mission that ended in 2012. Over roughly the same period, suicide claimed the lives of 160, according to National Defence figures.

Horses are different from animals such as dogs and cats because they’re not predators but prey, says Morrigan Reilly-Ansons, a London clinical counsellor.

“That means they approach the world differently. They approach it always with the No. 1 question: ‘Am I safe’? And that makes them really in tune with their environment.

“And when we’re in it, that makes them really in tune with us as well.”

Riding the horses is an important part of the project, which tries to help soldiers find inner peace and social interaction.

But the 16-week program, now about a year old, is struggling to stay on its feet. Vandergragt says she’s had to pay some expenses herself.

The biggest costs are maintaining the facility and the horses, and having a therapist on board.

So far, 36 soldiers have completed the program.

“Something really special is happening here and we refuse to let money be the piece that holds us back,” says Vandergragt, a former St. Catharines resident who has worked with horses for 15 years.

The program, held on a farm near Pembroke, costs $16,000 a session to run for 10 participants. So far, Vandergragt and her team have put in 1,800 volunteer hours.

Boudreau says he’s made so much progress since joining the project he doesn’t want to see it end.

“If this project dies, there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to miss out on some really, really good therapy,” he says.

“He’s made a beautiful comeback,” his mother says. “And I don’t have to worry every night that I’ll get that phone call with bad news.”

Boudreau says he hopes other veterans get the chance to take the program.

“It’s incredible how far I’ve come in such a short time.”