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UNT doctoral student Hallie Sheade uses horses to help veterans with PTSD in research study she is conducting at Wings of Hope Equitheraphy.

University of North Texas doctoral student Hallie Sheade is using horses as therapy for military veterans in Cleburne.

As part of her doctoral dissertation, Sheade has partnered with Wings of Hope Equitherapy in Cleburne to research the effects of equine therapy on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other than having two grandfathers who served in two wars, Sheade had no military exposure in her life until she began working for a counseling facility in which the main population served were military veterans.

“As I worked with the veterans I heard their stories,” Sheade said. “It made the experience and helping them so much more meaningful to me. They go through so much when they’re over there and when they return it’s harder for them to recover from their experience.”

Sheade, who has been working with horses for 25 years, said there is little to no empirical research on equine therapy methods to help military veterans with PTSD.

Last month, a report commissioned by Congress showed that despite spending billions of dollars to treat military veterans and service members with PTSD, the government has little evidence their effort is working. According to the report, since October 2001 more than 310,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD and the government has not been consistently collecting data on how patients are coping or what kinds of treatment they’re receiving, making it hard to determine the best quality of care.

Sheade said she hopes her scientific research can be a stepping stone in finding the best care veterans and service members can receive. 

For her research, Sheade plans to use a single-case design with four to five participants. Veterans who qualify for the study will receive an assessment to evaluate their PTSD for about three to five weeks before entering the study. Counseling will last 18 weeks and Sheade will continue to evaluate each veteran’s PTSD throughout the counseling sessions to look for any changes. After the counseling sessions end, she will continue to evaluate for three weeks to see if the benefits persist.

Sheade said the sessions will be tailored to each client based on individual needs.

“Some will be more compelled to tell us more of what they’re feeling and others are not going to be as comfortable,” she said. “They tell us what they want to work on and we work with them.”

The integral part of the intervention is the horse. The clients don’t ride them but rather pet and engage in other activities with the horses on the ground such as grooming and leading while talking to Sheade.

Sheade said therapeutic horseback riding provides recreation for people with certain cognitive and physical disabilities whereas equine-assisted therapy needs to be facilitated by a licensed mental health professional.

As part of her research, Sheade collaborates with Wings of Hope staff and UNT instructors, including counseling professor Cynthia Chandler who is an internationally renowned expert in animal-assisted therapy.

“This is a relatively new field and there is still a lot to be researched but it’s an exciting time,” Chandler said. “By doing this research Hallie is helping the field grow.”

Chandler helped Sheade develop her equine-assisted therapy practice at the Wings for Hope facility, Equine Connection Counseling PLLC. Sheade not only helps military veterans but all people seeking her counseling services.

Chandler said something animal-assisted therapy does that talk therapy doesn’t is the use of touch.

“When humans touch and socially interact with a therapy animal their hormones change significantly,” Chandler said. “‘Happy’ neurochemicals, oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine increase when humans touch and allows for them to open up. Therapists are not allowed to touch clients but using animals is extremely helpful.”

Chandler also said that science shows as the “happy” hormones are going up the stress-inducing hormones are going down at the same time.

“This makes the [client] more accessible,” Chandler said. “It allows for them and the therapist to dig deep down to those dark emotions and begin to heal. There’s a healing in touch and animals are a surrogates for therapeutic touch.”

Sheade said animals provide a soothing effect that calms clients that are anxious and nervous. It’s a nurturing response from the animals, she said.

Paul Ziehe, a certified riding instructor at Wings of Hope who co-facilitates during counseling sessions to create a safe environment for humans and horses, is a Marine Corps veteran who said he sees the benefit from equine-assisted therapy.

Although he’s never been diagnosed with PTSD, he said he understands the issues that most veterans face when they return home.

“I’m no expert on PTSD but I know that it can take a small trigger to set someone off,” Ziehe said. “Those with PTSD are very aware of their surroundings and very sensitive to loud noises.”

However, sometimes it’s difficult to get veterans to come forward and ask for help because of the stigma continues to persist in that many military veterans fear that seeing a therapist will sink their careers, Ziehe said. 

“If they don’t fix the issue it can lead to other deeper, emotional issues like depression, paranoia and self-medicating,” he said. “But this therapy in itself is very beneficial because it takes the clients outside that clinical setting.”

Ziehe also said the horses are responsive to emotions the clients present.

“They can pickup on very subtle clues. For example if a client is feeling anxious the horse can immediately sense that,” he said. “Responding to them can regulate the client’s moods.”

That can be helpful, Sheade said, because a lot of clients with PTSD experience anger and simply petting the animal can regulate those emotions.

“As counselors, we try to be empathic with clients and show that we understand them,” she said in a release. “That is what horses do naturally. They don’t judge the clients for how they are dressed or what they might have done or seen in combat, and that is an important thing for veterans. They may feel safer with the horse than with us because they know the horse is not judging them; they know the horse is not lying or tricking them.”

At the moment, Sheade is recruiting veterans for the study but has worked with countless veterans in the last two and a half years. 

For information on equine-therapy and Sheade’s services, visit www.equineconnectioncounseling.com.

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