Horses offer hope for sufferers of post-traumatic stress
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.
Crews battle an out-of-control wildfire Sunday near Nordegg, about 170 kilometres west of Red Deer.
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.
Don Wood, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, reaches out to a horse between exercises in the Can Praxis program.