Laurie Sullivan-Sakaeda is a licensed psychologist who uses horses to work with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Sakaeda talked with City Weekly about her therapy and the issues veterans are facing. If you are a veteran interested in the program, call 801-915-5019 or visit AHelpingHoof.org.
What is it about horses that makes them effective in therapy?
They’re very sensitive to people’s emotions. They’re forgiving, but at the same time they don’t let people get away with a lot. So, if somebody’s working with a horse, and their issues come out, it’ll show because of the way the horse responds or doesn’t respond. If they don’t have the right presentation style, the horse will just stand there and look at them, like, ‘What do you want?’ That’s typically the way veterans interact in the world, and they’re upset because nobody’s listening to them. And it’s because they’re not presenting themselves the right way. And this shows them that immediately, because of the way the horse will react to them. On the other end of it, if they’re really upset about something, if they’re talking about an issue and it brings up a lot, the horses will come over to stand by them, just to say, “It’s OK, I’m here.” If you were truly an awful person, this horse wouldn’t come within 10 feet of you.
What issues are veterans working through?
It doesn’t matter what service or conflict these guys are in, it leaves them feeling unforgivable. And it eats at them. They think they’re the worst person in the world. And that’s why you get people committing suicide. Maybe these guys are the lucky ones, that they’re alive, but it really interferes with what they are able to do and how they perceive themselves. And if I can do anything to relieve that in the slightest way with these horses, by getting them to see that what they did isn’t necessarily who they are. ... It’s really hard, especially with the old guys, because they’ve had it for so long. And I don’t get very far. But every time I do, we get a little ways.
What effects have you seen?
The veterans learn to relax. They learn to be kinder to themselves. I work with a Marine, and he spooks easily, and he gets angry easily. But, he has a relationship with one of my mustangs, and he just relaxes. We may not be doing intense therapy all the time, but if somebody who’s been uptight for 45 years because of being in a war zone, and they can get around a horse and relax for 10 minutes, that’s a big deal to them. So much of what they’ve got is so locked, that the chances for it to really change are limited. But if they can relax, if they can have fun—we do a lot of teasing and joking, so there is a lot of laughing that goes on. It really is the best medicine, next to horses.
Is it difficult to get into this program?
It’s not full at all. There are a lot of veterans who don’t know it exists. It is hard for veterans to admit that they need help. The VA is jammed, they’re overworked, so a lot of people aren’t getting what they need. This is a way to introduce people to therapy, or it works well with traditional psychotherapy. For the veterans, it doesn’t have that rigid feeling that being in an office does. And there are different expectations when they come out here, and they have a companion. If I’m talking to someone, someone else will be over scratching a horse, and getting some comforting jujus off of the horse. You don’t get that in an office.
What’s important for people to understand about veterans?
I just don’t see how we can send these people out, year after year, and then not care about how they come back. And just pretend they don’t exist. People don’t want to remember that the war is going on. They don’t want to pay for it, they don’t want to sacrifice for it.
Some of these folks are on VA disability as well as Social Security disability. Some of them don’t get anything. They didn’t ask to be in situations where they end up with PTSD. Yeah, they joined the military, and they knew that was a risk. But it was an illegal war.
[One of the men in the program] joined the National Guard after 9/11 to go protect his country. He didn’t join to go fight an illegal war. Now his PTSD is so bad he really can’t work.
So I feel like whether they joined the military or not, they didn’t ask for PTSD. As a nation, we’re so happy to send them over and celebrate our troops. We need to take care of them when they get home, whether it’s physical or mental disabilities.
I want people to remember veterans, I want them to say hi, have compassion, and not be afraid. The vets say they want understanding from others. This is in contrast to ridicule or ignorance that they see all the time.
We have talked in group several times about the nice pictures on TV of the soldiers arriving back from overseas and there’s lots of hugging and kissing and crying. The next thing anyone knows about returned soldiers is when some guy gets shot downtown by the police. The reality is that, of those [soldiers] on the news, an average of one-fourth will be in trouble within six months to a year. The soldier might be angry, drinking, withdrawn, aggressive or seriously depressed. The other end of that is they might be dead. The spouse, parents, children will be frightened, confused, angry, and/or emotionally or physically hurt.
What are the benefits of group therapy?
You hope that people will talk to other people. Part of it is to get feedback, part is so they know they’re not the only ones that feel that way. There’s a tremendous amount of guilt among the people for what they did or didn’t do. A guy who was a medic in the first Iraq war, he feels really guilty for all the people who died. Somebody from the other side can say, “Well, I feel guilty, but you don’t have a reason to feel guilty.” So they get it more from one to one. I can tell them, and they sort of believe me, but if they get it from somebody else, it feels really neat. And also feels that they’re not alone. Also, sometimes people come up with brilliant insights that I never think of, that they can feed back to the other person.
During the therapy session City Weekly visited, veterans wrote on the horses with special washable markers. They wrote words that represent how they feel about themselves or words that others have used toward them. Why do you have them do it?
This is all about the junk you carry. Look at the horse’s eyes. You’ve said all these terrible things that this horse is carrying. But look at those eyes. I told [one of the vets], “I see a lot of similarity between yours and the horse’s eyes.” And he said, “What?” I said, “I see kindness.” And that’s really hard for him to handle. But I want him to see that whatever they think about themselves that they can look at this horse, and they have writing on them and stuff hanging off them, but there’s still a basic goodness in the horse’s face. And I’m trying to get them to see that comparison.
How did you get involved in this kind of therapy?
I’ve been doing this for six years. I’ve always done a lot of really experiential psychotherapy, creating situations that people acted out, rather than sitting there, asking, “How do you feel today?” And even before I knew [equine therapy] was an organized thing, I started thinking it would be really cool. Then I got trained. I tell people, I have ADD, I get to be outside with my animals, helping people, and I don’t have to be in an office.