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Heart of Horse Sense Helping Vets in North Carolina

 CREATING HEALING EXPERIENCES: Shannon Knapp, executive director of Heart of Horse Sense, takes a moment after teaching a community educational program. Photo by Krista L. WhiteAsheville resident Matthew Estridge was diagnosed with PTSD after his first Army deployment and began receiving treatment while still in the service. During a second deployment in 2007, however, he was hit by an improvised explosive device that caused a traumatic brain injury and made his PTSD worse.

Awarded a Purple Heart and honorably discharged in 2008, Estridge has continued to receive treatment at the local VA hospital. Last month, however, he found his way to a nonprofit called Heart of Horse Sense.

“Even though the VA has been helpful with group sessions and counseling,” says Estridge, “finding a treatment like Heart of Horse Sense was something I was missing for a long time.”

Based in Marshall, the organization provides free equine-assisted psychotherapy as well as instruction in therapeutic riding and natural horsemanship (a technique for training horses).

“Veterans and at-risk youth are the two groups we see that can benefit the most from these services,” says Executive Director Shannon Knapp. “They’re also two groups that may not choose traditional talk therapy. ‘Tell me how that makes you feel’ is generally not something they’re going to participate in.”

Working with horses, says Estridge, “teaches me to be confident in myself, because that’s what they require from me: They teach me patience and make me feel at peace, like they understand what’s going on inside me.”

Estridge had no prior experience with horses, but he says the program “is special to me: It’s helped me out more than I thought it could. And it gets me out of the house, so I’m not sitting around depressed.”

Horses mimic human emotions, requiring calm communications that promote emotional awareness, self-control and impulse modulation, says Knapp, who founded the organization. “Through understanding and helping, the horse becomes less reactive, more of a partner; there’s something about that process that helps us become less reactive, more of a partner, and helps heal a traumatized brain.”

This dynamic connection with another living being makes equine-assisted therapy fundamentally different from some other approaches, she maintains. “Unlike other programs that have whitewater rafting or high-ropes courses, most of the time, a horse has an opinion about what you’re doing. You have a living, breathing animal who responds to you as you are; the river doesn’t care how you’re feeling today.”

Veterans can also choose to get involved with her organization, notes Knapp. “Sometimes they don’t want services but would rather help; it’s in their DNA.”

Jake LaRue has been volunteering with the nonprofit for a couple of years. The 44-year-old Marine Corps veteran, who’s been diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder, says his involvement with the group has taught him “self-regulation, how to relate to people and how to develop relationships.”

But while Knapp firmly believes in the power of equine-assisted psychotherapy, “There need to be better studies to prove efficacy,” she asserts. However, “Getting good, hard numbers on such a soft subject can be really difficult.” But in a pilot study at Fort Carson, Colo., notes Knapp, a therapeutic horsemanship program reduced the risk of violence by veterans by 24 percent and suicide attempts by 62 percent.

Meanwhile, her organization is studying heart rate variability (measuring the length of the inhale and exhale) in people who participate in its programs. “When they’re equal,” Knapp explains, “that’s considered a coherent heart rate, which is ideal. If I have a superlong inhale and a supershort exhale, I’m jacking up my system; if I have a superlong exhale and a supershort inhale, I’m depressing my system.”

Veterans don’t need a referral to receive services from Heart of Horse Sense. “They can call us out of the blue, they can email us, or they can show up on an open day, such as Fall Fridays, which are walk-on days for vets from 9:30 a.m. to noon,” she explains, adding, “We really believe in horses’ incredible ability to do for [veterans] what humans cannot.”

-Mountain Xpress, Asheville, North Carolina



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