Operation Sanctuary: Finding a Way Home
by Heather Jeffrey & Ray Anschel
A soldier points across the pasture at a large, black horse standing with his mouth open and says, “That's me... I'm trying to get the pain out but it just won't come.”
In pastures and arenas all across Minnesota and the nation, horses are being called to serve those who have served our country. EAGALA Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), founded in 1999, offers an alternative form of therapy for veterans and their families. Whether they are struggling with PTSD, anger management, grief and loss, transition stress, communication challenges, re-integration, pre-deployment and post-deployment stress, addictions recovery, resiliency and coping skills, depression, loss of connection to self and community, EAGALA Model EAP offers an opportunity for clients to feel, experience, and heal in an emotionally safe environment – free from judgment, expectation, and agenda.
EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) has over 4000 members in 41 countries, with over 500 programs providing services by EAGALA certified professionals. The EAGALA Model EAP and EAL is a growing modality of treatment and education where horses are teamed with a licensed mental health professional and a horse professional in a collaborative effort to address treatment and learning goals. All practitioners are certified under a model whose four main tenets are: Code of Ethics, Team Approach, No riding: 100% of the work is done on the ground, and a Solution-Focused Approach wherein facilitators believe in the capability of the client to have the best solutions for themselves when given the opportunity and space to discover them and respond from them.
A white and brown horse approaches a sailor and pushes his head into the sailor’s chest and he says, “He's telling me it's time to move on.”
Due to the nature of the work itself, this type of experiential therapy has proven, time and again, extremely effective in assisting veterans. Since so many veterans are dealing with significant PTSD, EAGALA Model EAP is an attractive and viable alternative to “talk” therapy for them. This equine therapy does not require the participant to recount nor relive an experience by talking about it. But rather because of its “hand-on” approach, participants learn by doing in an active model, one that is familiar to veterans who went through combat training in much the same manner. Veterans step into “in the moment” interactions with horses that require them to be present and that reinforce the integration of new behaviors developed and experienced by the veteran in a non-combat setting. In such a setting, working with such magnificent 1200 pound plus animals, veterans discover that they cannot 'control' the animals; instead, they must find ways of relating to them and to themselves and their circumstances. Additionally, working with horses and being in nature is very freeing to these men and women, especially those who are blocked off from traditional therapy due to stigma, bad experiences or lethargy with the whole process. EAP is a short-term, interventional therapy that works well as a stand-alone or as an adjunct to traditional therapy and can be done in a group or individual setting.
“I have been to so many therapists over the years. Nothing ever worked. The horses have a way to put it right into your face—it’s intense, but it works for me.”
During an EAGALA Model EAP session, the horses become a mirror and a living canvas on which veterans can experience their life from a fresh perspective. Horses, by their nature, are flight animals that are extremely sensitive and operate in a highly alert state; as such, veterans resonate with them. Horses are social animals and exceptionally good at responding to non-verbal communication, providing opportunities for veterans to begin to explore how they are connecting to others and their community; such exploration is a vital part of reentering and reestablishing civilian life. The horse's response to the client's non-verbal communication becomes very familiar as veterans are able to see and experience in real time what behaviors are working for them and which are not with regard to their relationships with others, with themselves, their emotions, and their aspirations. Since horses have no inhibitions, preconceived notions or hidden agendas, they act purely on basic needs, mirroring the behaviors and emotions of the individuals or groups with whom they interact. Through the activities the participants are engaged in during an EAP session, the horses “play-out” and mirror the dynamics the participants experience in other aspects of their lives. The masks, the facades, the pretenses drop away. As one veteran commented after a moment of insight in the pasture one warm summer evening, “Horses make you authentic.” Additionally, spouses and children, and those who work in the area of military member support - whether working alongside with the veteran, or on their own with their own experiences and struggles - find this type of therapy to be a breath of fresh air and a way to find hope!
“I don't know how it works but there has definitely been a shift in me. I have been able to get in touch with things from the war that I haven't really been able to deal with. After a few sessions I feel like I have connected with things that months’ worth of other therapy hadn't been able to touch. The people closest to me can really see a difference. Thank you...”
EAGALA Model EAP and EAL has been and will continue to be a viable, cost effective, and respectful alternative or addition to traditional therapy that honors the participant and creates an environment where healing can happen and where veterans can complete their journey back to civilian life.
For more information on how to become connected to a local EAGALA Model EAP provider, contact Operation Sanctuary, a referral source for military personnel, their families and support networks at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call Ray Anschel, Operation Sanctuary Coordinator at 952-334-4166. Financial assistance for EAP services is available to cover out-of-pocket expenses to military service members, families, and their support networks.
“It takes a special type of person to be in the Special Forces. Throughout these years, I have had my missions and got them done. That’s what counted, that’s what I was needed for. Coming out here—with these animals—has helped me more than anything I have ever been to. We are not just sitting here, talking—I don’t understand why these horses understand what I am really feeling, but they do—and yet they still accept me. It has made it possible for me to not just be a tool in the military, but to get reconnected with my family and myself.”
Heather Jeffrey, CTC Heather joined Acres for Life in 2007 and is EAGALA Advanced Certified, a Certified Therapeutic Coach® and Master Practioner of NLP. She also has a degree in Conservation and Biology and years of experience working with individuals, groups, families and youth in a variety of experiential learning modalities.
Ray Anschel is an EAGALA Certified Equine Specialist and serves as the coordinator for Minnesota’s EAGALA Network as well as Operation Sanctuary, EAGALA’s Military Services Referral Program. He has taught writing and literature for more than 40 years and has a long history of facilitating leadership and problem solving workshops in higher education and for business and health professionals.