ccupational therapy professor Donna Latella was in a serious car accident in October 2015. “That day was my 28th wedding anniversary, and a car ran a red light and hit me at top speed. I thought I was dead,” recalls Latella.
Besides totaling her car, she suffered a back injury and later, post-traumatic stress disorder. “I became afraid to drive,” she says, adding that her injuries also made it impossible to pursue one of her favorite pastimes: horseback riding. Still, Latella found herself heading to the stables where she boards her four horses. “I realized that I was taking comfort from just being with the horses,” she says. “I didn’t need to be riding.” From that realization, an idea was born.
People with PTSD may experience nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss, insomnia, avoidance of social interactions, fear, depression, addiction, decreased concentration and other symptoms. Latella is certified and has taught therapeutic riding to people with physical and developmental challenges for many years, but she wondered whether people suffering with PTSD and other mental challenges could be helped by working with horses on the ground. “A lot of people aren’t aware that this, too, can decrease stress and increase confidence.”
Latella put her theory to the test by developing Heroes and Horses, an innovative equine learning program to help Quinnipiac student veterans cope with PTSD or service-related anxiety. Five occupational therapy students assisted Latella as part of their capstone course.
For six weeks, four veterans spent two hours every Sunday at the JC Eventing Barn in North Haven, Connecticut, grooming, walking and caring for horses. Although it is difficult to quantify success, Latella said one of the veterans disclosed how it has been difficult talking with people, but he found it was easier to communicate with the animals. “That was very significant,” says Latella, who began the program by educating the veterans on safety techniques and body mechanics. Therapy horses have exceptional levels of tolerance and gentleness and are generally well-mannered and in good health.
Jakob Loren was diagnosed with major depressive disorder while serving in the U.S. Air Force. He began attending QU in Fall 2015, where his symptoms continued. “I had no previous exposure to horses, so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says.
“We began each session by brushing the horses, then we usually walked them around a bit; sometimes we’d set up a course,” says Loren, who is studying finance. “The most interesting thing is that if you were agitated, the horse would be more irritable, but if you were calm, the horse would be calm, too. I think anybody with depression, veteran or not, can benefit from this program.”
Latella notes that most of the horses they use are older (horses often live into their late 20s or early 30s), and some are therapy-certified by Pet Partners. “Of course, no horse is spook-free, but we only work with horses that are considered safe,” she points out. Her primary therapy horse is 27 years old. “We call him Steady Eddie, and he has lived up to his name.”
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why equine therapy works, Latella explains it this way: “A horse is a 1,200-pound animal. When you can bond with an animal that is so large, an animal that could otherwise make you feel scared or overpowered, it can be very empowering.”
Eulogio Valentin Jr., who is scheduled to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree in 2019, served in the U.S. Army for six years, including deployments to Korea and Cuba. He didn’t know what to expect from the equine program, but ended up appreciating the experience.
“Something as simple as grooming ended up being really relaxing and calming,” he says. He found that Minnie, the horse he worked with, seemed to notice subtle mannerisms of hidden stress. “The program was a real help with just releasing stress from the school week, from studying for exams or getting overwhelmed with the work load. It was a chance to live a simple life for an hour … to just stop and smell the roses.”