How to Save a Life – Blue Star Ranch helps veterans rebuild with equine-assisted psychotherapy
A year ago, Manny Perdomo didn’t like horses. He did not want to ride one, and he certainly did not want to try another form of therapy that didn’t work. But on a recent warm October morning, as he stood next to Jack, the horse naturally moved toward him. As Manny explained the basics of equine-assisted psychotherapy, his body language, demeanor and mood naturally attracted the horse.
Jack stood calmly by his side, and Manny responded to Jack’s every movement as if it was second-nature, involuntary even. Manny moved; Jack moved. Manny calmed; Jack calmed. The two were intimately connected in a way that made words unnecessary. Something greater was happening at Blue Star Ranch in Saugus, and it looked like healing.
When Manny returned home from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, it felt like leaving one version of Hell only to land in a new one. Anger and fear consumed his thoughts and controlled his actions, and immediately he began grasping at fixes: a cocktail of medications, various forms of talk therapy, anything that would help. But none of it really did.
“When you’re in war, every day you think: Am I going to die tomorrow? Who will get shot today?” he recalled of his time overseas. “You’re stripped of your humanity and pushed to your breaking point. When you come back, there’s no reverse process to make you feel human again. You’re numb.”
Diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Manny battled crippling anxiety, anger and insomnia, watching the effects of his emotions spill over onto his wife and young children.
“The thing with PTSD is you don’t even know you have it,” he said. “It’s masked, concealed. Your anger just escalates until, one day, you’re out in public, punching the concrete until your knuckles bleed.”
Manny eventually found his rock bottom, and with nowhere else to go but up, he began to search for inspiration. He covered his house with phrases and words that made him feel positive and hopeful, and in his darkest hour, he thought about his duty.
“I’d see vets who were paraplegics and doing these amazing things,” he said, “and I thought: ‘I owe it to myself and all the fallen to try again.’”
Like a stroke of fate, the VA recommended he visit Blue Star Ranch in Saugus, a non-profit equine therapy center for veterans. Quickly, Manny’s world began to transform with each and every hour he spent by Jack’s side.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy has been steadily gaining attention for its successful yet unconventional approach over the past couple decades. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) has standardized the therapy for practitioners across the world, and Blue Star Ranch employs EAGALA-certified Katie Ryan, LMFT, to oversee and guide the sessions, as well as Executive Director and Founder Nancy Pitchford-Zhe, who has 27 years of experience in the field.
Established in 2014, the ranch began serving clients in 2015, starting with their “guinea pig,” Manny. The free therapy program is structured by 10 weekly sessions that measure the therapy’s effects on a client’s anger, anxiety, nightmares, sleeplessness, coping skills and communication skills. After graduating the course, Manny reported a 30-40% decrease across all categories, with an increase in his coping and communication skills. And he did all of that without ever getting on a horse.
“Equine therapy is done on the ground,” Katie explained. “You don’t need to have any experience with horses.”
In a typical session, the patient will set up a course inside an enclosed area, using an array of objects from pipes to cones to teddy bears. Then the patient’s job is to lead the horse through it.
Horses have a natural ability to mirror a person’s mood, Nancy explained, allowing the patient to see how he is feeling in the present moment by watching the horse. More importantly, a patient can see how his current mood affects his ability to complete the task at hand.
“You can’t lie to the horse,” Manny said. “It senses how you’re feeling and reacts.”
If Manny is feeling anxious, for example, Jack may turn his back to Manny, making it impossible to complete the course until Manny relaxes into it. If Manny shows up to a session with pent-up anger, the horse might gently nip in his direction, putting up a fight in response. Meanwhile, Katie stands by to guide the session and supervise for safety at all times.
“I might ask Manny to set up a course that represents how his life feels,” Katie explained.
Accordingly, Manny could use the objects to create chaos or obstacles, or he might encircle himself to represent the feeling of being trapped, she explained. As Manny works his way through Katie’s prompts, he can draw his own connections and conclusions about what the interaction means in his own life, and most importantly, he does so in a safe environment.
“It helps because you can be yourself here,” Manny explained. “You can speak your mind without repercussions because the horse won’t judge you or care about what you’ve done. All that matters to the horse is the present moment. It makes you feel free to be angry or sad, and deal with the most traumatic events of your life. The horse is like the interpreter; he gets what you cannot say and gets you to understand yourself.”
Manny also responded well to the horse because he could go at his own pace – he was in charge. Ironically, patients seem to speed up the pace in equine therapy.
“Four sessions out here probably equal a year and a half of talk therapy,” Manny said. “You get to the nitty gritty pretty quick.”
In 10 sessions, Manny has made incredible progress. He even brought his family in for a session, allowing the entire family to heal together. With so much growth, Manny has moved from patient to Outreach Coordinator for the non-profit.
“One year ago, I was in there with the horse,” he said. “Now I find myself saying to patients on the other line: ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ It’s changed my life completely, for me and my entire family. I may never be 100 percent who I used to be, but I have begun to value life again. This therapy is a life-saver.”
For more information, please visit www.bluestarranch.org.
photos by Joie de Vivre Photographie