It isn’t always a dog that’s man’s best friend. As it turns out, sometimes it’s a horse. And U.S. military veterans and first-responders suffering from PTSD, depression and other ailments are finding that out as participants in special equine psychotherapy programs being offered by Reins of HOPE in Malibu, Ojai and Santa Ynez.

That healing process was demonstrated at a recent event in Malibu, where the LA Sparks women’s professional basketball team sponsored a three-hour retreat with the Reins of Hope horses, specialists and therapists for 14 female military veterans.

It was part of the LA Sparks’ “Spark the True You” program. 

“We do these events for female veterans across Southern California to help with physical, mental and emotional well-being,” Heather Smith, senior manager of community relations, wrote to The Malibu Times. “Each event has had a different theme to it, but for this one we decided on equine therapy with Reins of Hope.” 

“We connected with the LA Sparks at the annual Women Veterans Summit in LA,” said Reins of Hope Executive Director Samantha Balcezak, explaining how the two groups met. “Only 10 percent of veterans are female, and they usually get lumped in with males even though they have different needs.”

Reins of Hope’s general participants includes both male and female military veterans, first responders like firefighters and police officers, youth being held in local juvenile detention centers, foster children, gold-star families, active duty military and families of active duty military (stationed at Point Mugu and Port Hueneme).

Reins of Hope is a nonprofit organization that started in 2006, opened its Malibu location for LA County clients in 2009 and established a partnership with the West LA VA Medical Center in 2014 to expand access to alternative therapy for veterans.

Although equine therapy for veterans is offered by a dozen different organizations around California, (including another group in Malibu—Big Heart Ranch), Balcezak said Reins of Hope is the only one with the more rigorous military certification from the nonprofit EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association).

Eagala Military Services programs are conducted by certified two-person teams—a mental health professional and an equine specialist—each with 140 mandatory hours of training: military cultural training to understand military customs, norms, traditions, values, language and experiences; clinical training focused on trauma, conflict and grief; and supervised therapy hours with military clients in clinical settings.

The equine specialist must have 6,000 hours of equine training.

The equine therapy sessions take place in a horse arena with three or four horses at liberty (not tied up). The two-person team directs the client to connect and interact with the horses, using props in some instances. The sessions do not involve riding the horses—the client interacts with the horses on the ground.

“I’m all for traditional therapy,” Balcezak said in a phone interview. “But we take folks that weren’t successfully helped by traditional therapy. Equine therapy is very effective with youth and with people who are done talking in regular therapy. Our therapy is more action-oriented—not just talk—and doesn’t have the stigma associated with traditional therapy.”

Eagala wrote that the “unique qualities of horses speed emotional breakthroughs... especially for those suffering from PTSD. Horses are highly attuned to someone coming into the arena with fears and anxieties, and react accordingly ... They instinctively analyze human body language, providing valuable feedback.”

“The horses react differently to every group or individual that comes into the arena,” Balcezak said. “They pick up on energy.”

The horses used by Reins of Hope have all been rescued. 

“These horses were all repurposed,” Balcezak continued. “Our clients relate to these horses, as in, ‘I’m no longer a soldier, but I can be repurposed, too.’”

Data shows military PTSD clients are more likely to start and complete equine therapy than traditional talk therapies. 

The nonprofit side of Reins of Hope doesn’t advertise for clients, but they still have a waiting list. They take donations in the form of money, materials and hay in order to continue providing free services for veterans. 

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