Sarah Williams knows firsthand the hardships some military veterans face. Her former husband served in Vietnam, and it left him with psychological scars.
“The struggles he faced internally profoundly affected the rest of the family,” Williams said. “The challenges we faced with the (Veterans Administration) and other providers finding care for him and others in our family were — and are — of great concern to me.”
Her experience with her husband 30 years ago prompted Williams to pursue a graduate degree in social work from MU in 2010. While she was in school, she decided to buy a farm near the Missouri River in Cooper County — now known as Storybook Farms — with the purpose of promoting human-animal interaction. She is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA, to provide mental health therapy using horses.
By the middle of October, Storybook Farms expects to open a new facility that encompasses a 120-by-60-foot covered arena, stable, classroom, handicapped-accessible bathroom, studio loft with a commercial kitchen and conference room. The facility will allow Storybook Farms to provide services to more active military, veterans, their families and caregivers.
“The facility will allow for larger groups to divide,” Williams said. “One group will be inside doing an internal exercise or a reflection, while the other half of the group is outside in the arena doing an EAGALA experience.”
While the farm has provided mental health services to all people since 2013, it recently started offering equine therapy to military, veterans, their families and caregivers. The idea was developed two years ago, but it was not until this year that the project took off.
The farm’s equine therapy uses EAGALA’s experiential model, which incorporates horses into mental health treatment and personal development.
The Eclipse Project specifically focuses on equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal growth services for active military and veterans.
Through the project, which is primarily funded by the farm’s agriculture revenue, veterans are able to participate in the farm’s mental health and personal growth services at no charge. The farm is in the process of creating a not-for-profit arm called Friends of Storybook Farms, which will then be the main source of funding for the Eclipse Project.
A long road toward healthier vets
The military and VA have come a long way since Williams’ husband struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, Williams said. Now, there is greater societal awareness of mental health and the problems faced by military and their families. But she wants to keep up the momentum.
There’s still a stigma attached to receiving mental health services, she said. Military veterans are often especially hesitant to seek help.
“In the military it may be greater because of their fears about rank or discharge status,” Williams said.
In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide per day, according to the 2016 report by the Veteran Affairs’ Office of Suicide Prevention. The VA has been focused on various approaches to reducing suicides among vets and reaching out to people at high risk.
Dr. Grant O’Neal, a behavioral health psychologist at the Truman Veterans’ Hospital, said animals provide a number of positive health effects for veterans.
“Pets in general improve our emotional or mental health,” O’Neal said. “They give us activity, a sense of companionship or belonging, and I think all of those things are beneficial for, of course, veterans as well as others.”
People tend to feel deeply connected and have an empathic relationship with animals, such as dogs and horses, he said.
“I’ve had clients talk about using animals in various ways, including therapy dogs and participating in programs like (the Eclipse Project),” O’Neal said. “It likely does some things that we try to do in treatment like increasing social engagement, increasing participation in activities that are meaningful, pleasurable, enjoyable or give a sense of accomplishment.”
Although the research is still developing for equine therapy, O’Neal expects it to be therapeutic for people.
“My expectation is certainly that it’s going to be shown to be therapeutic in terms of increasing social interaction,” O’Neal said.
Unique people, unique problems
Clinical evidence and human experience illustrate horses’ ability to help people work through emotional barriers, especially those suffering from trauma, according to the EAGALA model, which is based on the notion that horses serve as effective metaphors for clients who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or having trouble adjusting to civilian life.
Through an emphasis on experience and teamwork, clients are guided toward making connections and discovering their own solutions, according to the farm’s website. Counseling “sessions” with the horses, however, don’t involve riding. Clients go into the arena with a horse, a horse professional and a licensed mental health professional. How they interact with the horse is up to them.
Horses are prey animals, which makes them responsive to nonverbal messages. Through these responses, clients are reminded of their personal goals, challenges and relationships, according to the philosophy that is the foundation of the treatment method.
The hope is that clients learn and grow from the human-horse relationship. The counseling sessions don’t take place on horseback, so they are safer and have a stronger focus on the client’s life goals, she said.
“There’s an element of freedom and an element of safety that goes hand in hand with the self-awareness that people experience in an EAGALA session,” Williams said. “It’s not a clinical setting. It’s less formal, it’s less restrictive.”
And no two sessions are the same, she said. Each is unique to the person and what he or she wants to work on. For example, before a therapy session the client may decide to work on anxiety or interpersonal relationships, she said.
“We believe that our clients actually have the solutions inside them,” she said.
The military counseling sessions explore topics like re-integration, PTSD, military sexual trauma and family dynamics, she said. Each session is different.
“What works for one person doesn’t always work for the next person,” she said.
Williams refers to horses as lie detectors because they reflect clients’ energies in counseling sessions. They are vigilant animals with a gifted ability to read people, she said.
“The horse is the perfect feedback because the horse gives completely unbiased, true, authentic feedback,” Williams said. “There’s no preconceived anything.”
Meanwhile, it’s not bad for the horses, either, even when horses are actually ridden by veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
A recent study by Rebecca Johnson, a professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine and the Sinclair School of Nursing, found that horses used in therapy programs did not experience physiological or behavioral stress.
The horse-human interaction also improves the confidence and self-esteem of riders, as well as their sensory sensitivity and social motivation, which decreases their overall stress levels.
Williams says the farm itself is a kind of refuge that encourages the difference between military and civilian life. It aims to provide a place for comfort and reflection, she said.
“It’s really quiet out here, and it’s really peaceful,” she said. “It’s just like a breath of fresh air.”