Caroline Kocot, MS, BSW, describes her equine (horse) therapy work with veterans and their families as “incredibly rewarding.” Caroline, who has a degree in social work from Indiana University, is currently a Provider Relations Coordinator with Telemynd, routinely meeting with new providers interested in joining Telemynd’s extensive behavioral health network.
Before Telemynd, Caroline worked with innovative therapeutic programs like Bradford Woods Outdoor Center and Battle Buddies, employing therapy techniques like equine therapy - a type of recreational therapy (also called therapeutic recreation). Evidence-based programs like these use outdoor activities - in this case, games and exercises with horses - to help veterans transition back to civilian life while living with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, or other combat-related disabilities. Caroline says she enjoyed it so much that she continues to spend her weekends at the programs as often as she can.
Caroline spoke with us recently about her experiences working with veterans and about how therapists use the connection between people and horses to enhance physical or emotional healing.
Veterans face unique challenges when they separate from military service and return to civilian life
Even the most resilient of our veterans can find re-adjustment stressful, and unfortunately, these challenges are also often associated with mental health issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety. And it's not just soldiers who suffer - studies have found that lengths of deployments are associated with emotional difficulties among military children and spouses too - which is why the programs that Caroline works with involve the families of veterans too.
Traumatic military events such as combat, accidents, or deaths in the field involving themselves or colleagues can have long-lasting negative effects on vets - such as trouble sleeping, anger, nightmares, and alcohol and drug abuse - all symptoms of PTSD. A JAMA Psychiatry study found the rate of PTSD to be 15 times higher in returning veterans than in civilians. The same study found the rate of depression in returning vets to be 5 times higher than for civilians. Worse still, almost 10% of veterans reported a recent suicide attempt in the last year. These are behavioral health trends that must be addressed.
What is recreational therapy, and how does it help veterans?
The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation defines recreational therapy as “treatment services and recreation activities using techniques including arts and crafts, animals, sports, movement, drama, music, and community outings. Recreational therapists are specially trained therapists who treat and help maintain the mental and emotional well-being of their clients by seeking to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety, build confidence, and socialize effectively.”
Recreational therapy offers an innovative approach to managing mental health issues such as behavior management, anger management, coping and adjustment, stress management, and substance abuse. This type of therapy engages individuals and their families to collaborate and cooperate - in activities that may feel like play - in order to accomplish their goals. Caroline’s work with individuals and horses included activities like walks and (easy) obstacle courses with horses, grooming horses, and even finger painting on the sides of horses (she says the horses love this, as it feels like being groomed). She says, “...but it's more than play. This is evidence-based therapy, and it's working.”
Research shows that as a result of participating in recreational therapy, individuals develop a better sense of self-control and competency - which may be missing from their lives. Riding and caring for horses appears to improve self-esteem and anxiety. Other benefits may include:
- Promoting general well-being and health
- Enhancing mood and lessening psychological stress levels
- Improving teamwork, trust, communication, and social interaction with others
- Enhancing resilience and helping to overcome negative past experiences
- Diminishing the focus from disability toward ability, increasing independence, and restoring quality of life
Lessons learned from working with veterans and recreational therapy
Caroline says her experience has taught her that there is a multitude of approaches to addressing behavioral health issues with which many veterans live and that recreational therapy may be the right fit for many. However, she stresses that it's really important to stay the course and not give up if one therapeutic approach does not work. She says, “there are resources and help out there; keep asking for it, and don’t give up if one method doesn't seem to work. As the old adage says, “try, try again”.”
If you or a veteran you know are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, depression, or anxiety, consider consulting a behavioral health professional
There are recreational and equine therapy programs located across the U.S. Many involve outdoor activities like the programs Caroline works with. A behavioral health professional is a good place to start to find out more about recreational therapy, local programs, and if this kind of therapy is the right fit for you. If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand the issues facing veterans and their families and have experience treating them. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.