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2017-04-21 / Focus On Veterans

Using horses to treat PTSD

Veterans benefit from equine therapy to adjust to being home
By Shannon Hautala
HTF Contributor


A veteran learns how to execute an emergency dismount. Hautala uses getting off a horse safely when a crisis hits as a metaphor for having a plan when a life crisis hits. Submitted photos. A veteran learns how to execute an emergency dismount. Hautala uses getting off a horse safely when a crisis hits as a metaphor for having a plan when a life crisis hits. Submitted photos. Horses are amazing creatures. They attract attention wherever they are seen, grazing in a field or even the center attraction in a parade. They are timeless and often remind us of strength, gracefulness and freedom. Historically horses have been a source of survival and a beast of burden. Most recently horses are less used to transport but are a novelty or a hobby. You can rarely bring up the topic of the horse without someone having a story to tell about one they knew in their lifetime. Horses are etched in our history, family lineage and for some of us in our hearts.

Horses have provided amazing services for man since the beginning of time and are continuing to astonish us in how much they give back. The more we study horses for other purposes besides riding or pulling carts we recognize the amazing ability they have to serve us in ways we never imagined. Horses excel in working with special needs and the disabled, and they provide mental health gains that counseling alone without horses assisting cannot come close to accomplishing.


A group of veterans and loved ones links arms and works as one unit to complete a task. A group of veterans and loved ones links arms and works as one unit to complete a task. I have had the privilege of working with horses in counseling humans since 2003 and have continuously learned more than I ever fathomed, not only about myself, but how horses heal other people. This level of understanding horses moves away from the “cowboy” mentality of control, dominance and force, but rather using the natural qualities horses and their herds provide to heal individuals who struggle with personal issues, mental health and even severe PTSD related to combat. First and foremost lets cover “Why the horse?” Horses are prey animals, are constantly aware of their surroundings and are constantly assessing safety and danger. Secondly they are a herd animal and they depend on each other for survival and safety. Unlike packs, such as wolves who will destroy each other, horses are only focused on the well-being of all members, just like our military men and women.


A veteran practices the emergency dismount at a walk. A veteran practices the emergency dismount at a walk. When people go through basic training they are taught to become a herd and depend on each other for safety and well-being. When they go to combat, that herd is tight, and they know they are safe with each other as a herd. The trauma of PTSD doesn’t happen there with their safe herd; it happens when they come back and we try to integrate them into a new herd—their home and society. All of a sudden there is a perceived lack of safety and no herd to keep them safe. This is where PTSD develops, and they react to not having the support system they are accustomed to.


Therapist Shannon Hautala and her horse Nellie. Therapist Shannon Hautala and her horse Nellie. Using horses to treat combat-related PTSD is extremely affective. Bringing the wounded to the understanding that the horse responds the same as they do, and using metaphorical learning with the horse allows the PTSD sufferer to re-integrate with their new herd. Using exercises assisted by horses, the PTSD sufferers and their families can reintegrate with fewer traumas, heal triggers and learn new ways of communication in the new herd back at home.

Along with those opportunities, horses provide unconditional acceptance. They do not focus on injuries like society does: burns go unnoticed and missing limbs are not addressed. Horses will accept you just the way you are, so that when you work with them you can put aside those discomforts society creates. A horse won’t stare and whisper at your injuries or differences. They treat you like everyone else, building your confidence by acceptance.


Veterans make an initial connection with horses they are unfamiliar with. Veterans make an initial connection with horses they are unfamiliar with. You are encouraged to experience the hands-on learning that only horses can provide. We recognize that PTSD does not only have a military origination, and we serve all sufferers of PTSD. Our organization H.O.P.E. Ridge Acres Inc. can help you heal those wounds, get back to feeling safe again and to teach you the skills to lead a fulfilling life without trauma and anxiety. We believe that Horses Open People’s Eyes and are excited to teach that if you Hold On Pain Ends.

Shannon Hautala, a former longtime Iron Range resident, lives in Tennessee. She has a master’s degree, multiple certifications in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and specializes

in PTSD treatment using horses. She and her company H.O.P.E. Ridge Acres are based in Tennessee to serve military personnel in that area. Training clinics can be scheduled for practitioners and providers around the U.S. who are interested in learning more about the power of horses in healing. She can be contacted at 615-606-8868 or shannon.hautala@tn.gov.

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