Columbia Takes the Reins on Horse Therapy Program for Vets with PTSD
New York (March 7, 2018)—The ‘Man O’ War’ program, a research project that is studying the effectiveness of horse therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), will be now fully managed by Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). The study, initiated by Ambassador Earle Mack and funded by the Earle I. Mack Foundation, is ongoing at CUIMC.
It is estimated that up to 30 percent of veterans develop PTSD. Individuals with PTSD may have flashbacks, triggering avoidance of situations that remind them of their traumatic experience. They may also feel jittery or have a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.
Current treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, have high dropout rates and limited effectiveness. Pharmacotherapy is another option, but studies suggest that medications may alleviate symptoms in only 20 to 30 percent of patients. Equine assisted therapy—in which patients interact with horses to understand and address emotional and behavioral challenges—is widely used to treat children and adults with a variety of mental health problems. However, there is little data supporting its effectiveness—and no standardized approach to delivering the therapy.
Mack, a veteran, horseman, and former ambassador to Finland, has long been a proponent of using horses to help treat veterans with PTSD. In 2015, he solicited the help of CUIMC’s department of psychiatry to design and carry out the study. Since then, the Earle I. Mack Foundation has provided $1.2 million to fund the initial phase of the study and has committed additional funds in 2018 to bring the study to its completion.
In this eight-week program, participants engage in a series of non-riding interactions with specially trained horses under the supervision of mental health therapists and horse experts. Using MRI and other methods, the researchers are evaluating whether these interactions can help the veterans better regulate their emotions.
Treatment sessions take place at Bergen Equestrian Center, 15 minutes from Columbia’s medical center campus. To date, more than 40 veterans with PTSD have participated in the treatment program.
“We are grateful to Ambassador Mack for his support in establishing and providing initial funding for the Man O’ War project,” said Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Chair of the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. “With Ambassador Mack’s continuing support, we look forward to completing the project in the next several months and expanding our research on the causes and treatment of the psychic wounds of war.”
After completion of the study, the researchers plan to distribute a training manual that can be used by horse therapy centers nationwide.
“We are only beginning to understand the effects that war has on our veterans,” said Yuval Neria, PhD, professor of medical psychology at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of Columbia’s PTSD program. “We have a responsibility to explore all possible avenues of treatment for PTSD, and we are proud to continue this innovative study.”
Columbia Psychiatry is among the top ranked psychiatry departments in the nation and has contributed greatly to the understanding and treatment of brain disorders. Co-located at the New York State Psychiatric Institute on the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus in Washington Heights, the department enjoys a rich and productive collaborative relationship with physicians in various disciplines at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Columbia Psychiatry is home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders
Columbia University Irving Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Irving Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit cumc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.