Equine therapy a promising PTSD treatment, but research hard to come by

A Brescia University College researcher says equine therapy has strong potential as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, but that trying to prove it through research is a challenge.

"If we're going to be scientific we should measure this, so people aren't just clutching at straws."

Veteran Owen McElroy says working with horses has helped him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

It's been about a year since veteran Owen McElroy met his horse, Ben, in an equine therapy pilot project at Sari Therapeutic Riding.

These days, McElroy says his busy work and family life keep him from spending much time at the stables, but that he still draws on what he learned in the project to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Every day I'm able to use some of the tools I gained in some aspect or another: self-awareness, being more objective and less emotional," said McElroy, who spent 14 years in the military, and now works in operations for a local recycling company.

Although anecdotal cases like McElroy's make a strong case for equine therapy, Brescia University College researcher Anne Barnfield says trying to establish solid research on the subject is an uphill battle. 

It's mostly a question of research funding—and getting access to it isn't easy, said Barnfield, who worked on the pilot project that McElroy took part in. 

"We're kind of caught in a negative cycle," said Barnfield, adding that because equine therapy isn't yet a validated therapy, funders don't want to pay to study it. But without funding to study the project, researchers like her can't prove whether it's valid or not. 

At this time, the only treatments with 'strong evidence' behind them are cognitive processing therapy and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, said Peter Hall, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Waterloo. 'Strong evidence' here means evidence backed up by randomized controlled trials.

If we're going to be scientific about it we should measure this, so people aren't just clutching at straws and trying anything.- Anne Barnfield , associate professor of psychology at Brescia University College

Equine therapy could give patients another treatment option if it is proven effective, Barnfield said. It may even prove to be a better choice for some groups—for instance, patients who prefer working outside to talking with a therapist in an office.

"There are arguments that this might work better with a population, but we'd need to find that out," she said.

"Any kind of thing that people are trying to promote or sell they can say this is effective. If we're going to be scientific about it we should measure this, so people aren't just clutching at straws and trying anything."

New round of research set for the fall

Instead of a 10-week session, Sari Therapeutic Riding will offer two half-day sessions for those dealing with PTSD in September. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

This year, Sari Therapeutic Riding tried to host another round of the project, but couldn't find enough participants to make the finances work. Instead, they'll do two half-day versions of the project in the fall, said Sari Therapeutic Riding executive director Diane Blackall. 

Barnfield said she still plans to study the abbreviated version of the project, to try and find out whether short-term equine therapy still has an impact. She is currently in the process of getting approval from her university's research ethics board.

"I'm really curious as to whether an intensive, shorter term session would have an effect," said Barnfield, who said she suspects it will.

"Even if it turns out that the effect isn't great, well at least we know that."