The human-animal bond is strong. It also heals. If I have a difficult day, my dog, Shlomi, will lick my face, place her paw on my arm, and let me know she’s there. When my pitbull mix, Amigo, was still alive, he would curl his body next to mine and cover me with kisses. Over and over again, the companion dogs and cats I have lived with, and other animals who have crossed my path, have helped me through rough moments. So, when I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) six years ago, it was natural for me to turn to animals for help. And, that’s where Healing Through Horses came into my life.
Healing Through Horses
I found Judy Schneider and her animals through serendipity. A friend of mine had picked up her Healing Through Horses brochure and shared it with me. Schneider lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and is a member of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. My friend and I drove down together to attend one of Schneider’s all-women retreats with horses. I was hesitant at first, because it was difficult for me to be among groups of people, but Schneider welcomed me warmly. With the horses looking on, I soon felt my anxiety lessen.
In the months that followed, I worked with Schneider and her horses in group settings as well as one-on-one. I bonded with Buster, a large sorrel draft horse who beamed strength and solidity. Then there was Einstein, a mischievous black horse who liked to knock people’s hats off and play other tricks. Other horses included Jack, Madonna and Guapito.
PTSD can cause a person to feel different and distanced from others, leading to social isolation. In my own case, the acceptance of the horses helped alleviate this. If the horses could accept me, maybe I could accept myself — and, maybe other people would accept me, too.
I remember one day when Schneider asked me if I would like to climb onto Buster’s back. This was unusual, but I did it. Then, she suggested I lay down on Buster’s bare back. This was even more unusual. I lowered myself down, placing my spine against his, my chest open to the sky. I felt the horse breathe under me, and my whole body relaxed. His broad back supported me completely. It felt like I was lying on a warm beach, or a whale — lulled by the gentle rise and fall of Buster’s breathing. It was a strong reminder of all the support that I have in this world, even when I cannot feel it. Buster gave me hope in the natural rhythms of life, again, and in my abilities to heal from my wounds.
Schneider, a licensed social worker, has worked as a therapist since 1986. She founded Healing Through Horses in 2007 to inspire wellness through the power of the equine spirit. Schneider said horses can help those who have PTSD because they tune in quickly to what is going on with a person and are well-grounded.
Schneider gave an example of how she might work with someone with PTSD who was feeling overwhelmed. She might have them walk in the corral among the horses. As their heart rate drops and the person feels calmer, the horses may feel safe enough to approach, positively reinforcing the person’s behavior.
For someone showing signs of distress, Schneider might guide them to place their hands on one of the horses.
“Eventually they will come back to themselves because they have contact,” Schneider said.
For some people, the size of the horses and their power can be frightening, even terrifying. Schneider told a story of a young girl in foster care who came to see her for therapy. The girl had been badly hurt by the adults in her family of origin. The horses were another large, ominous presence to her. The girl was so frightened of the horses she expressed anxiety whenever she came near one.
“She thought anything bigger than her was going to kill her,” said Schneider. “Eventually, she learned that big people, adults, are not all dangerous. But, she only learned that through the horse. … That was what we worked on for a long time. Touch the horse — and you survive. Brush the horse — and he likes you, he doesn’t move away, he’s not going to hurt you. For her, that was monumental.”
Eventually, the girl was able to get up on the horse.
“It was a surrendering,” said Schneider. “She surrendered to the fear of death. She learned that trusting something is OK.”
The girl not only conquered her fear, she made friends. The horses would follow her around, said Schneider. They became her companions and confidants.
Trauma and PTSD Basics
The term “trauma” comes from the Greek word for “wound.” The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” Healing takes time, but a few months after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, most people can resume their normal activities and functioning.
However, some people develop PTSD. The term was first used in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) published by the American Psychiatric Association. PTSD is commonly associated with the Vietnam War, and its veterans who returned home. Earlier terms for the same phenomenon include “shell shock,” “soldier’s heart” and “battle fatigue.”
We now know PTSD is an anxiety disorder that affects people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. The onset of symptoms can happen months or years after a traumatic event. Research shows it is unlikely the symptoms of PTSD will resolve on their own without treatment.
The good news is there is help. According to the National Center for PTSD, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, effective treatments include trauma-focused psychotherapy and medication. Numerous studies show another effective PTSD treatment is animal-assisted therapy, in which a trained therapist or animal handler works alongside a dog, horse or other animal to provide support for a person.
Canines to the Rescue
Across the country, another woman has been immersed in the healing power of dogs. For 25 years Marni Bellavia has worked with the Humane Society of Broward County in Florida. Her current title is Manager of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), and she trains volunteers and their companion animals to provide comfort to those in need of extra support. The program serves three counties and helps people in hospitals, hospice settings, senior retirement homes, mental health care facilities, children’s facilities, foster homes, group homes, libraries and schools.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, Bellavia heard the news of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School which took place in Parkland, only 30 minutes away. She sprang into action. The very next day she had dog/person teams deployed to the high school as well as nearby schools where they could offer support for students, faculty and families. Throughout the year, 20 dog/person teams attended community vigils, visited people at their homes, came to school, and continued to be a resource for those affected by the shooting.
There was a profound loss of hope, said Bellavia.
“Most of the kids, honestly, didn’t want to talk to anybody. I mean, it was horrific,” Bellavia emphasized.
Working with the counselors and psychologists at the school, Bellavia and her teams took the dogs to therapy sessions. With the animals present, students were able to cry and talk to the animals about what had happened and how they felt. The dogs worked with students individually, and sometimes with groups.
“The animals were providing comfort and that unconditional love and non-judgment that you don’t normally get from people,” explained Bellavia.
Though Bellavia responded to the school shooting by making her dog/person teams available to others, she was working in new territory. It made her realize there was not yet an animal-based trauma-response effort that could serve her community. She knew that needed to change.
On a sleepless night about two weeks after the shooting, Bellavia came up with the idea for the Canine Community Resilience program. The new program provides canine support to 911 dispatchers, first responders, and those affected by a traumatic event such as a fatal car accident, or domestic violence situation. Bellavia partnered with fire stations and police departments and with the Broward County Sheriff’s office to develop the program. Together, they trained dogs and their handlers to be able to participate in traumatic situations. The dogs learned how to tolerate, adapt and cope with the physical and emotional stress that comes with a crisis.
The Canine Community Resilience Program was born out of the horror of the Parkland shooting, and a dog named Karma played a part in it. Karma is Bellavia’s own companion dog and has worked next to her for years providing love and healing to others. Bellavia said watching Karma and her other dogs comfort people in need has been profound.
“It means everything to me. It’s the reason why I continue to do this work 25 years later. It’s the reason why I dedicated my life to animals that can help people,” said Bellavia.
“It takes a special animal to be able to intuitively be that for other people,” Bellavia added. “What I saw my dog doing this last year at the high school has completely revamped everything I’ve thought about animals, and I’ve been doing this, literally, my whole life.”
Bellavia said Karma had an innate ability to seek those people out who needed her support.
“She felt it,” said Bellavia. “She went to them. It was just an amazing, beautiful thing.”
Animal-assisted therapy programs exist across the United States and the world. Animals and Society Institute maintains a list of these programs and other resources at animalsandsociety.org/human-animal-studies/animal-assisted-therapy-programs.
Ariana Kramer is a freelance writer and poet. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in education with a concentration in Leadership for Ecology, Culture and Learning. Visit www.arianakramer.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.