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UCF Veteran's Program Seeks to Create Evidence Base for Equine Therapy

There are veterans who won't be participating in Veteran's Day parades and celebrations because being around people is just too much for them. That is frequently the case for vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or P-T-S-D. But a UCF research project is aiming to prove that horses are an excellent tool for helping those veterans re-integrate into society.

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[Lindon Ortiz helps double-amputee Josh Cope mount a horse]

30-year old Josh Cope is sitting on the cross bar of a 20-foot tall wooden A-frame at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee. With the help of 5 other guys, he’s walking it forward, kind of like stilts. Josh served two tours in Iraq with the Army. He lost both of his legs during his second tour and uses a wheelchair. The other men are veterans too. They all have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and this is a team building exercise.  It’s part of a research partnership between Heavenly Hoofs Equine Therapy and the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine. The guys get pretty excited during this exercise-  and that could be a problem for the next exercise.

Josh and the others are now in a round pen with loose horses. But he’s not paying any attention to them. Instead, he’s playing with a whip. “See, like Josh right now, isn’t aware of what he might be doing,” says co-researcher Cher Meyers, who developed the program’s 10-week curriculum.

“Their goal is to move the horses through different obstacles. We have a jump in the middle, we have a pole they have to cross over and they have two cones they have to move through,” she says.

There’s no touching or hitting allowed. If the men are too passive or their movements too vague, the horses ignore them. If they’re too aggressive, the horses do all they can to avoid them.

“Now you see a softer, see how they’re working together more? And the horse is just stepping very calmly over the center jump, beautiful job,” says Meyers.

Horses communicate through very specific body language. Square your shoulders to a horse, raise your hand, turn your back- those movements all mean something to a horse. It’s not a body language that is readily apparent to people. UCF College of Medicine Assistant Dean Manette Monroe says for the vets to work successfully with the horses, they have to be mindful of their movements and mindful of their emotions.

“They’re learning to move with purpose. It’s more of a challenge to get a horse to connect with you. Equine therapy, pet therapy, simply working with dogs, even cats, all of those are extremely useful modalities, but horses are unique for PTSD simply because of their behaviors,” says Monroe.

Equine therapy programs are used for a variety of conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy and mental illness, but there isn’t a strong evidence base for it. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, or Path held its international conference in Orlando this past weekend. Spokesperson Cher Smith says this year’s conference included a seminar on how equine therapy centers can prepare for research.

“We’re very aware of the need for more scientific research based evidence and we’re working to get that because we do think that equine assisted activities and therapies are so important and can help so many people,” she says.

Monroe says part of their plan is to build a world-class research-driven equine therapy center near Medical City.

“We want to actually show this works, and evidence based research uses modalities that are actually measurable and one of the things that we’re using are several different psychological surveys that have been validated in a lot of other venues, other than equine therapy and therefore we can use them and measure the before and after with the participants in this program and actually compare that to other treatments and see what kind of response we get here,” she says.

Monroe and Meyers use the phrases “life up” and “life down” to remind the guys to watch their watch their energy levels. If the guys want the horses to be calm, they have to be calm. Out here they get it. But they have a hard time bringing it home. Lindon Ortiz served with the Marines in Afghanistan. He’s been through the program once, and decided to return as a mentor.

“I can relax around a horse but when I go home with my wife, it’s not the same thing, she doesn’t understand the Life Up Life Down, so we’re trying to incorporate a program where couples can come or significant others and they can learn from it and work with the horse any maybe apply it at home,” says Ortiz.

Josh Cope says it’s hard to explain why, but the program has helped him.

“It’s helped me calm down a lot, it’s helped me with my PTSD, it helps me to think things through more,” he says.

It’s now time to ride back to the barn. Josh throws his arms around the neck of another veteran, who then climbs on a step to hoist Josh onto a horse. Out here, he rides alongside the others- a double amputee riding horses for the first time in his life. 


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