Horses of­fer hope for suf­fer­ers of post-trau­matic stress

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID FRASER

NEAR ROCKY MOUN­TAIN HOUSE — Stand­ing out­side of a barn north­east of Rocky Moun­tain House, Don­ald Wood talks qui­etly to his wife, Lisa Con­rod. The sun is warm, the soft sound of the wind joined only by the oc­ca­sional trot of horses a few feet away.

The peace­ful set­ting is by de­sign.

The two have trav­elled from Nova Sco­tia to take part in a pro­gram aimed at mem­bers of the mil­i­tary, and their spouses, to pro­vide tools in deal­ing with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD), a se­vere anx­i­ety dis­or­der that can de­velop af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a trau­matic event.

“(I’m) learn­ing through horses how (I) ap­pear to my spouse, or my chil­dren or my fam­ily,” Wood said.

It’s a pro­gram that har­nesses the tran­quil­lity found on a ranch in the Al­berta Foothills to rein in the chaos of PTSD.

Over three days, Wood and Con­rod worked with horses in an ef­fort to try to over­come it.

Wood, who is still ac­tive as a mem­ber of the Armed Forces, was di­ag­nosed with the dis­or­der in 2008 af­ter a decade of ser­vice. He’s had other treat­ments be­fore, but noth­ing like this pro­gram.

Can Praxis is a three-step sys­tem de­vel­oped by Steve Critch­ley and Jim Mar­land. Critch­ley wanted to do some­thing for Cana­dian soldiers and met Mar­land through a mu­tual friend.

“I’ll be hon­est; as a mil­i­tary guy, the last per­son I wanted to talk to was an­other psy­chol­o­gist,” said Critch­ley, jok­ing.

It didn’t take long for the pair to rec­og­nize the ben­e­fit to soldiers they could have by join­ing forces. They work to­gether in de­vel­op­ing and car­ry­ing out each ex­er­cise.

“In a sense, we’re not pro­vid­ing di­rect treat­ment here. We’re train­ing peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate and re­solve con­flict.

“That helps treat­ment a tremen­dous amount,” said Mar­land, a psy­chol­o­gist who uses the in­stinc­tive re­sponses of horses to demon­strate the im­pact com­mu­ni­ca­tion has on re­la­tion­ships.

Dur­ing one ex­er­cise, Con­rod is asked to stand in the mid­dle of a ring, crack­ing a whip.

As she smacks the air and shouts, the horse runs in fright­ened cir­cles.

Then she drops the whip and re­laxes her body. The horse, feel­ing ex­cluded and still fear­ful of the whip, rec­og­nizes the change in her de­meanour. It doesn’t al­ways work but, more of­ten than not, the horse will slowly ap­proach its for­mer foe and fol­low that per­son around with­out any prompt­ing.

“The horse is like a tun­ing rod to how you are,” ex­plained Wood. “If you’re anx­ious, even though you don’t feel anx­ious, they know you’re anx­ious.

“When you’re in a state from what­ever var­i­ous part of PTSD, you don’t see your­self. You don’t rec­og­nize your fam­ily’s reaction.”

Con­rod, who never pre­dicted her hus­band would be di­ag­nosed with the dis­or­der when they mar­ried, said she saw the change.

“He was an­gry, hos­tile and un­pre­dictable,” she ex­plained.

“There was no way of know­ing how he was go­ing to re­act to things.”

Wood ad­mits his fam­ily deals with the brunt of his symp­toms, which in­clude de­pres­sion, anx­ious­ness and night ter­rors. Few PTSD pro­grams, how­ever, ad­dress the out­come those symp­toms have on spouses.

“A lot of spouses feel iso­lated and just des­per­ate,” Con­rod said. “You’re look­ing af­ter the whole fam­ily some­times.”

The im­por­tance of in­clud­ing fam­ily in the treat­ment is some­thing Critch­ley — the other founder of Can Praxis — rec­og­nized from his 28 years of mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence.

Critch­ley, a for­mer ba­sic train­ing in­struc­tor, said soldiers are con­di­tioned to make de­ci­sions quickly and act on them.

That doesn’t trans­late well into civil­ian life, es­pe­cially when it’s mixed with PTSD.

“What hap­pens with that side- ef­fect is we tend to knock the pa­tience out of them. They be­come very im­pa­tient,” he said. “The wives, or spouses or fam­ily mem­bers need to know where th­ese guys are com­ing from.”

Can Praxis par­tic­i­pants — usu­ally three or four cou­ples in each group — get to know other cou­ples in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

Through­out the pro­gram, Critch­ley and Mar­land trade du­ties of fa­cil­i­tat­ing dis­cus­sion with the group and tend­ing to the on­go­ing chores of keep­ing the barn clean.

A bond is quickly formed within the group — hon­esty is a must in the treat­ment and tears flow freely in the safe space.

“It’s al­most a nat­u­ral com­rade­ship. We’re of a com­mon ca­reer, com­mon life­style and com­mon cul­ture. We’re all soldiers and th­ese are all mil­i­tary spouses,” Wood said.

Con­rod added that get­ting to know cou­ples go­ing through sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions is “gold.”

The pro­gram is still in its in­fancy, with only two groups grad­u­at­ing from it and fund­ing from the Wounded War­riors and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs only start­ing to come in.

Critch­ley and Mar­land don’t guar­an­tee their meth­ods work, but a Saskatchewan-based re­searcher is in the midst of track­ing par­tic­i­pants to mea­sure the ef­fects of horses, vet­er­ans and PTSD.

Al­berta En­vi­ron­ment and Sus­tain­able Re­source De­vel­op­ment

Crews bat­tle an out-of-con­trol wild­fire Sun­day near Nordegg, about 170 kilo­me­tres west of Red Deer.

Stu­art Gradon/cal­gary Her­ald

Lisa Con­rod, whose hus­band suf­fers post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, par­tic­i­pates in the Can Praxis pro­gram on a ranch near Rocky Moun­tain House on the week­end.

Stu­art Gradon/cal­gary Her­ald

Don Wood, who suf­fers from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, reaches out to a horse be­tween ex­er­cises in the Can Praxis pro­gram.

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