FLORENCE — StarrLee Heady directed a group of about 20 mental health counselors to divide into groups, and set up two areas inside the horse arena at Dr. Patrick Daughtery’s facility.
One corner of the dirt-floored arena was uncluttered and well-defined. That corner was dubbed for deployed military. The corner diagonally across the arena was about the same size, but with less structured boundaries and more things strewn about. That corner represented home.
For the demonstration, five horses were separated into the areas. Once everything was in place, Heady, Daughtery and the counselors on hand stood back and watched as the horses moved in the spaces, left the spaces, and interacted with each other.
The exercise was part of a training session for the counselors in attendance on using equine therapy to assist veterans, military personnel and families connected to the military with combat-related stress, post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injuries. It is also designed to assist families and couples coping with the stessors that come with military life.
Heady has been using equine assisted therapy since 2000. She started working with the Naval Health Deployment Office at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2011.
She uses the EGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model of therapy, and applies it to the needs of the groups or individuals she is working with.
“I think one of the biggest reasons that working with the horses fits is because it is action-oriented and experiential,” Heady said. “A lot of times our military are in such a high-performance, active, go forward kind of mode that to sit down in a traditional therapy model is intimidating, and it doesn’t fit their culture.”
In the demonstration from the training session, as horses moved from one defined area to the other, the counselors attending the classes noticed some horses began to display agitation. Their ears were pitched back; one kicked out; and the horses never seemed to settle.
Heady pointed out that this is illustrative of the struggle military members and their families have transitioning from deployment to home and back again.
“This kind of exercise is one I would use for military families both pre- and post-deployment,” Heady said. “We would talk about how to move between both spaces, and what kind of space is needed for people that have been in both places.”
Daughtery said the purpose of the workshop was to expose more counselors and mental health service providers to the benefits of equine therapy, and introduce them to ways to use the therapy for military-connected clients.
Heady said there are other uses for horse-assisted therapy in a military environment.
She recalled a group counseling session with combat veterans during which one member described a flashback he’d experienced. His description triggered a…