Working with horses offers a lifeline to vets

Alberta-based equine therapy program teaches veterans how to communicate with their loved ones

Horses can be a mirror for human behaviour — act aggressively or refuse to communicate and it will let you know.

“You can lie to a human, but you can’t lie to a horse,” said Steve Critchley, co-founder of Can Praxis, an Alberta-based equine therapy program that uses horses to help Canadian military veterans and families affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Working with a 1,200-pound animal will help an individual who is dealing with the stigma of PTSD and help them regain self-confidence. When you have self-confidence, you have self-esteem. When you have self-esteem, you have pride. People with pride don’t kill themselves.”

The program isn’t focused on horsemanship, but on using horses as a tool to understand human interactions.

“Horses are a social animal — they crave, need, thrive and depend on social interaction,” said Critchley. “As a social animal, they reflect social values. A group of horses has a chain of command. Veterans become very comfortable with that.

“Working with horses with different personalities helps people gain take-away skills and our courses help people learn real life skills in communication.”

A group of veterans and their spouses debriefs during a Can Praxis course. The course uses equine therapy to help Canadian Forces veterans and families affected by PTSD.

A group of veterans and their spouses debriefs during a Can Praxis course. The course uses equine therapy to help Canadian Forces veterans and families affected by PTSD.
photo: Can Praxis

The goal, of course, is to apply those skills in everyday life.

“What we focus on is helping people find the ability and means and skills to have personal conversations with the person most important to them — their spouse, partner, or family member,” he said. “We help them understand how PTSD affects an individual — mentally and physically — and how that affects their ability to have conversations. PTSD creates filters where people aren’t exactly aware of how they’re interacting with each other.”

Can Praxis was founded by Critchley, a conflict resolution specialist and horse lover with 28 years of military experience, and Jim Marland, a psychologist and Equine Assisted Learning facilitator. Since its inception in 2013, veterans from across Canada have participated in the program, funded through Wounded Warriors Canada and donations from small towns.

Veterans, who participate in the program at no cost, range in age from their 20s to their late 60s.

“It’s not unusual for people to show up deathly afraid of horses, and at the end of the program, we have to physically stop them from putting one in the trunk of their car,” said Critchley, who began breeding Canadian horses on his acreage near Torrington after retiring from the military.

Since horses have evolved as a prey animal, they are hyper alert and sensitive to their environment and everything that is going on around them, just like a veteran, he said.

And both horses and people use body language to communicate.

A veteran and a horse engage in an exercise in Can Praxis, an equine-based therapy course that helps Canadian Forces veterans overcome PTSD.

A veteran and a horse engage in an exercise in Can Praxis, an equine-based therapy course that helps Canadian Forces veterans overcome PTSD.
photo: Can Praxis

“People working with horses understand or come to understand pressure and release,” said Critchley. “If you’re trying to force a horse to do something that it’s uncomfortable with, it’ll let you know through its physical actions by just refusing to move or running away from you.

“This might be the first time individuals dealing with PTSD see what happens when they’re constantly putting pressure on other members of their family and not realizing it. When people are aware of how they are coming across, that helps them adapt their own emotions and body postures, so a conversation becomes effective and not scary.”

In different phases of the program, veterans and their spouses work with horses together, to learn how to communicate with each other and with the horse. Participants may learn skills such as brushing or leading the horses, but do not ride in the first phase of the program.

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In the second phase, held in Bowden, the equine interaction is increased and followed by debriefs around the campfire. In one exercise, a spouse will move a blindfolded veteran and a horse through an obstacle course. This is designed to show the veteran how to communicate and depend on their spouse. In the final phase of the program, five couples take part in a pack ride in the foothills around Cochrane.

Since its inception, more than 140 couples have used the program, and 130 of them have stayed together. A study by Can Praxis and the University of Saskatchewan found that 97 per cent of participants noted instant relief from their PTSD symptoms, and 75 per cent experienced long-term relief.

“Our message is that you can overcome PTSD, you can get your life back, and you can heal,” said Critchley.

For more information, visit canpraxis.com.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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