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Equines for Freedom Program Helping to Fight PTSD

Equines For Freedom Program We all have the utmost respect and appreciation for our veterans, the brave men and women who fight for our protection and freedom.

There is a wonderful program called Equines For Freedom. Organized in February 2015, EFF is located on the campus of Marley’s Mission in Newton Township.

This therapeutic program brings horses, humans and the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Process together.

First, I must give you the definition of EMDR. Before my interview this afternoon, I had never heard of this treatment and its success rate. EA-EMDR stands for Equine-Assisted Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Simply put, this form of therapy involves bilateral stimulation of your brain through eye movements (or more typically in this case tapping bilaterally on the subject’s back) to unlock “stuck” traumas that often cause flashbacks, nightmares or recurring negative thoughts.

Positive thoughts are then installed in place of the negative ones, and the end result is the ability to remember a traumatic incident without the same emotional charge the person may have previously experienced. Treatment is done under the close supervision of a licensed therapist trained in EMDR. An equine specialist and horse are also involved in this process in many ways, including observation, relaxation, and building positive experiences. Therefore, present for the individual session are the client, licensed therapist, equine specialist, and a horse or horses. Equines For Freedom is devoted to treating veterans who are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I went to Marley’s Mission recently and met with Heather Stage, equine specialist; Ann Marie Lewis, licensed psychologist, and Eric Davis, board member, to discuss the program. After 26 years of working in the field of mental health, I considered myself to be pretty well versed on various treatments, but admittedly, all of the information I learned today was totally unfamiliar to me, but it was both fascinating and exciting. I felt overwhelmed trying to absorb all of the information that was being put forth from these passionate, committed, and enthusiastic individuals.

Ann Marie Lewis, psychologist, is also a Red Cross mental health volunteer. Ann Marie has a 30-year trauma background. It was previously requested that she work with the families of some veterans who had been killed, all from the same infantry. In the meantime, Ann Marie acquired a rescue horse that had its own baggage and struggled with PTSD. Thinking of how both might be combined to battle and conquer a common cause, Ann Marie discovered such a program did exist in another state. She actively further pursued this venture, and the EFF Program began to unfold. Training and certification followed. Equines For Freedom gained their 501(c)3 status in November 2015.

Heather Stage, equine specialist, was impacted by the trauma of PTSD through a friend of her husband. Tragically, he committed suicide, and his wife was undergoing treatment for support and strength to cope with this terrible loss. When approached by Ann Marie as to whether she would consider joining the team, Heather willingly accepted the challenge to assist veterans in need, having been directly impacted through the tragedy of her friends.

Eric Davis served in the military for 13 years, and he was a recipient of the EMDR treatment (not through EFF). Eric found this treatment to be beneficial and healing for him, and when he learned of the formation of Equines For Freedom, his interest and firsthand experience quickly earned him a position as a board member, which he enthusiastically accepted. Eric is a very competent and effective spokesperson for the program, its success and rewards. Currently there are approximately 15 board members in Wyoming, Susquehanna, Lackawanna, and Luzerne counties. They also have approximately 12 volunteers interested in assisting with various fundraisers throughout the year. Talent is always needed and in demand!

Horses are prey and herd animals. These qualities make them alert and acutely aware social creatures, which is ideal for a therapist role. Their presence in the arena supports relaxation and can be used in various ways for grounding using the five senses. During my interview, I learned that the EA-EMDR therapeutic treatments do not require talking, so it is not necessary for the participant to share specific details about what he is thinking about. I was also surprised to learn that no riding of the horse is involved during the sessions. They are conducted on the ground in the arena. Allowing humans and horses to move about of their own free will provides the horses the opportunity to mirror clients’ emotions safely without restraint. In order to avoid negative or positive connotations, and to form a more special bond, names of horses are not shared. Rather, the client is encouraged to get to know the individual horse and give them a name that fits them. An individual session is one hour once per week, and the number of sessions required will vary on a case-by-case basis. Safety and stabilization are key factors in the team deciding when each person is ready for the processing, or bilateral stimulation, phase of EA-EMDR, and some people will spend more time in the preparation phase of this therapy than others prior to begin the processing of their traumas. Psychologist Ann Marie described the treatment as having one foot in the past and one foot in the present. And equine specialist Heather Stage explained that EMDR is used to stimulate the brain and is a miracle tool in promoting healing and balance within the individual. Treatment is connected and compared to the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. It is a fascinating science that has a proven success rate.

My drive to the site was relaxing, a sunny winter’s day on quiet country roads. As I drove up the driveway of Marley’s Mission, the rolling scenic beauty of Pennsylvania countryside stretched out before me. It really was quite breathtaking. Not to mention, as I took a tour of the stables, I was lovingly and enthusiastically greeted by a purring and rubbing black kitty (missing a chunk of one ear in a previous battle from kitty’s past life). He strolled along with us, making little repeated meows as if to say “Never mind the horses. Interview me!” I met two furry as a bear cute little Shetland Ponies in one stall, and one bay horse in another. When I showed my tablet to the horse and requested an interview, he stopped chewing his hay and began to turn towards me. Then he thought better of it and resumed chomping his tasty treat. Can’t blame you, buddy! These are working horses, and their time off is quality. I totally get it and did not take it personally! I also greeted and waved to the other program horses in the pasture above, and they all observed me with a look of confusion rather than interest. Not the first time that happened to me!

Equines For Freedom is located on the campus of Marley’s Mission. Their valuable treatment for veterans and their very existence depends on the generosity of donations as well as the various fundraisers they conduct throughout the year. It is their plan to serve veterans throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania, and there is currently an arena being constructed on site which is strictly for use by Equines For Freedom.

Confidentiality is of the utmost priority by all involved, and animosity is fiercely protected for all participants. It was a great pleasure to meet the individuals responsible for this program as well as recognizing their commitment to the health and well being of all veterans in need. A most important factor is that all therapeutic sessions are offered free of charge to veterans. Again, donations are greatly appreciated to assist Equines For Freedom in its continuing growth and success. Their mission statement: “Providing equine assisted PTSD treatment to current and former U.S. service members, regardless of the source of trauma or their characterization of service, at no charge to the service member.”

For information, visit

-by Judy Endo,


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