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Scientific Study: Therapeutic Riding Decreases PTSD

University of Missouri study documents success of such riding programs.

While organizers of therapeutic riding programs throughout the country can relay stories on how such programs can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans, results of a scientific study now support those observations.

According to a Jeff Sossamon story for the University of Missouri News Bureau, a University of Missouri study has determined that veterans had a significant decrease in PTSD scores just weeks after therapeutic riding. Results show that therapeutic horseback riding may be a clinically effective intervention for alleviating PTSD symptoms in military veterans.

"PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after exposure to life-threatening events or injuries and is marked by flashbacks, avoidance, and changes in beliefs and feelings," said Rebecca Johnson, a professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine and the Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the Sinclair School of Nursing. "Estimates are that more than 23 million military veterans experience PTSD symptoms each year. While counseling and behavior therapies often are prescribed, sometimes clinicians will encourage complementary therapies, such as therapeutic horseback riding. We wanted to test whether THR could be a useful complementary therapy in the treatment of PTSD."

The interaction between horses and riders has been demonstrated to increase riders' confidence, self-esteem, sensory sensitivity, and social motivation while decreasing stress. For the study, 29 military veterans were assessed for eligibility from a nearby Veterans Administration hospital. Those diagnosed with PTSD or PTSD with traumatic brain injury were invited to participate in a therapeutic horseback riding program once a week for six weeks.

PTSD symptoms then were measured both at three weeks and six weeks into the program using the PTSD Checklist-Military Version assessment, a 20-item self-reporting survey used by clinicians to gauge PTSD symptoms. Additionally, other measurement instruments were used to assess improvements made in the treatment of the anxiety disorders.

"Results showed that participants in the program experienced a significant decrease in PTSD scores, almost 67%, after just three weeks," Johnson said. "After six weeks, participants experienced an 87% drop in PTSD scores. Interestingly, the veterans who self-identified for the study all were from the Vietnam War era meaning that some of these military veterans had been experiencing PTSD symptoms for 40 or 50 years. It may be important for health care systems to support THR as a viable complementary therapy."

The article, "Effects of therapeutic horseback riding on post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans," was published in Military Medical Research. Support was provided by the Harry S Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital.