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Equine Encouragement: Horses Helping Veterans Deal With PTSD In New Therapy

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – There's a new way to help returning war veterans suffering from PTSD.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reports it doesn't involve drugs or new technology. It pairs them up with horses instead.

PTSD is a major contributing factor to the epidemic of suicide among veterans. On average, 20 vets a day commit suicide.

This therapy, run by psychiatrists at Columbia University Medical Center, seeks to prove that equine therapy can help servicemen and women.

It's also named after a famous race horse, Man O' War.

"I was always on edge. I was always looking over my shoulder. I had a hard time trusting people. If I was in a public space I had to always know where the exit was, make sure I saw where that exit was so I could see who is coming in and out," Air Force veteran Tei Pascal said.

Pascal's story is pretty typical of veterans. After four deployments, and 21 years in the Air Force, she was having trouble becoming a civilian.

Air Force veteran Tei Pascal (Credit: CBS2)

"Thunderstorms were a trigger for me and what the thunder and lightning would do is trigger the car alarms and I found myself as taking cover as if I was in Iraq again."

The PTSD finally led her to the Man O' War Project at the Bergen Equestrian Center. The idea is that veteran and horse are kind of therapists for each other.

"Even though he has that it keeping my hand on him is calming to him."

tei horse
Tei Pascal using equine therapy to treat PTSD. (Credit: CBS2)

The founder of the project explained how, even without any actually riding, the horse-human relationship is healing.

"You have to overcome your own emotions and difficulties to gain the horse's confidence," Earle Mack said, the Man O' War Project founder said.

"When you gain a horse's confidence you really feel good about yourself; you have accomplished something."

Even a casual search on YouTube reveals many equine therapy programs for vets. What's different about Man O' War is the connection with doctors Yuval Neria and Prudence Fisher who are conducting a rigorous scientific study to show that improving PTSD symptoms correlates with changes in brain scans.

"We want to see if we can teach other people to do it with similarly good results," Dr. Fisher said.

"It really altered my life in a way that allowed me to talk to people, to work with people, and not look over my shoulder," Pascal said.

The eight-week program and study is aimed at veterans and Columbia wants other centers to reproduce their results. Then it could also help children and other adult victims of violence who may also suffer with PTSD.

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