The Healing Power of Horses: How Equine Therapy Benefits Veterans, Victims of Abuse & More

In 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was abducted while walking from her home to a nearby school bus stop. She was sexually assaulted and confined for 18 years before she and the two daughters she had in captivity were recovered from kidnappers Phillip and Nancy Garrido. How do you start to heal after a trauma like that? One of the things that helped the most, Dugard says, was horses. She and her children and mother did equine-facilitated therapy (EFT) with Rebecca Bailey, a clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in complex trauma scenarios. Dugard was so impressed with the experience, she went on to found the JAYC Foundation to give other families in crisis the same access to healing.

“Horses have the special ability to make you be totally in the moment, making talking about the trauma I went through so much easier and less painful,” says Dugard, now 38. “The work Dr. Bailey was doing really resonated with me. The way she incorporated horses into our sessions was so much more impactful than just regular talk therapy.” In fact, EFT is a fast-growing therapeutic mental health treatment being used across the nation for everything from trauma and addiction recovery to therapeutic riding for special needs, including autism. The therapy can involve learning to care for a horse, riding or simply being around and learning to trust the animals. A mental health counselor and equine specialist are often present. Veterans, inmates and first responders are all finding benefits in getting off the couch and into the stables. Elizabeth and William Shatner are big supporters of the therapy, and even judges have discovered that a session with horses makes them better at their jobs.

Although equine therapy itself hasn’t been deeply studied, research shows that horses are acutely tuned in to human emotions, and anecdotal accounts of their therapeutic impact abound. These are just a few of the heartwarming success stories. How Horses Heal “Horses are nonjudgmental and they don’t obsess,” says Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus and Way of the Horse and a pioneer in the field of equine-facilitated learning. “Horse wisdom is concerned more with the present than the past or the future. If they sense danger, horses race to safety, then go right back to grazing. They don’t stay up all night worrying about lions. They go right back to enjoying life, taking it minute by minute, and they can teach us to do that.” Enjoying life was not something that U.S. Air Force veteran Ron Hathaway thought he’d ever do again. Before being introduced to equine therapy in 2014, the Wisconsin man was in a major slump. “I was in my chair in my garage, smoking cigars all day, completely suicidal, figuring out ways to kill myself and when and how I’d do it,” Hathaway, now 56, says. “I couldn’t talk to my family, couldn’t go anywhere, didn’t shower or bathe and I had a baby granddaughter I couldn’t be around. My life was spiraling down. I was losing my family.”

Desperate, his wife went into the garage one day, told him he needed to get help and got him into an in-patient mental health program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “I had no intention of opening up to anyone,” he recalls. “Just do my time and get back to the garage.” Then a recreational therapist told him to pick two activities. “Just checking boxes, knowing it wouldn’t help, I pointed to the first two on the list: a gym program and a two-hour-a-week horse thing,” Hathaway says. He kept to himself on the bus to the BraveHearts therapeutic riding and educational center, located outside Harvard, Illinois. It’s the largest equine program in the country for veterans—providing free riding, ground activities and work with wild mustangs to veterans and their families. “When I got there, someone with a big smile and an Irish accent stuck his hand out and said, ‘We’re so happy you’re here.’ I just went off on my own, not interested in horses, the people or anything. I didn’t want to get attached.” In spite of his protests, he eventually got on a horse called Boone. “I didn’t know nothin’ about horses. We walked around, and I was just looking at his mane and back of his head and, I don’t know how else to say it, I just had this deep sigh of relaxation and in a split second knew that everything would be OK, which hadn’t happened for years. That feeling was so alien to me.” The next day Hathaway’s mind started wandering back to Boone and the farm, and over the next weeks he and Boone got up to a trot, everyone cheering him on. “It was just totally freeing and such a release. I started talking to people on the bus, started talking to my wife and kids and telling everyone I knew about BraveHearts. “Those horses are a miracle. People who haven’t been through what veterans go through just don’t understand it,” Hathaway says. “They see the results [of military service], but they don’t know what happens inside your mind and your heart to get there. I would not be here today if it weren’t for BraveHearts and Boone. That is a fact. The program works so hard with each individual to be better and find a niche as a working part of society again.” Last year, BraveHearts (where Hathaway is now barn manager, caring for 33 horses) served 835 veterans in 19,673 sessions at no charge. In 2018, to raise awareness about today’s epidemic veteran suicide rate (20 vets take their lives each day), a group of 11 veterans, one Gold Star father and three support staff from BraveHearts rode horses 20 miles in both Washington, D.C. (past the White House), and New York City (down Broadway through Times Square to Ground Zero).