JORGE AGUAYO: What is Equus Medendi?

ANGIE SHEER: The Words "Equus Medendi" are Latin for "healing horse." Equus Medendi is an Equine Assisted Learning and Psychotherapy program primarily for Veterans.

Angie Sheer, founder and president of Equus Medendi and Certified Equine Specialist (with Bentley)

As we know, many of our Veterans are dealing with a variety of issues and providing a therapeutic experience at a ranch as opposed to the traditional in-office treatment has proven to be very effective.

Let me be clear though, this is NOT a therapeutic riding program. All activities are ground based because in this work, our horses serve as a "mirror". You can't see the mirror when you are sitting on it.

J.A.: How did this idea come about?

A.S.: Winston Churchill once said:" There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Anyone who has spent some time around these incredible animals will agree with that. So the idea of horses being therapeutic is not new.

Our program came about when a friend of mine retired from the military due to multiple injuries including TBI and PTSD. After a prescription drug overdose and almost losing his family due to uncontrollable anger issues, he asked to come to the ranch where I had been working with mostly underprivileged youth at the time, applying the same principals as we did with our rescue horses and our kids. It made such an impact on this soldier, he asked if we could do this for other vets. That day, in November of 2008, I made a promise to him and to date, we have had 243 Veterans complete this program at no cost to them.

J.A.: What makes a horse a good therapist?

A.S.: Horses are flight animals and even though they are extremely large and powerful, they are also very vulnerable.  In order to survive over millennia, they have learned to live in the moment, highly alert, aware and in tune with all that surrounds them.

Sky and Banks

Equus Medendi

This makes them quite relatable to many who are dealing with hypervigilance and anxiety. The horse however can teach us how to quickly assess a potentially dangerous situation and recover both physically and emotionally, literally within seconds.

As predators, gaining a horse's acceptance and friendship requires effort such as complete honesty, consistency, respect and calm assertive energy. Horses do not care what we may have done in the past.  In other words, the horse doesn't judge or deceive. Horses accept us unconditionally, reacting only to our behavior in the present moment. What we might hide from other people can be seen and felt by a horse, without us ever having to say a word. In terms of the treatment for PTSD and other trauma related symptoms, a connection with a horse is a visceral, somatic experience that affects all levels of the brain. 

J.A.: How long have you worked with horses?

Angie Sheer and Monty Roberts

A.S.: I have been around horses since I was about 9 years old, back in Germany. I started teaching riding lessons here in the U.S. about 25 years ago. Having witnessed the powerful therapeutic impact however, I started to refocus on exactly that.

In early 2006, I attended the Monty Robert Equestrian Academy (Monty Roberts is also known as "the horse whisperer"), followed by a Certificate Program through EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), which requires 6000 hours of professional horse work.  I then participated in a Trauma Resiliency Training, which is based on biology rather than pathology.  A combination of all of these components is what is now known as Equus Medendi, which has been in existence since 2009.

J.A.: Can you tell us more about your horses?

Sky in barn

A.S.: I could go on and on here, boasting like a proud parent, so I will try to keep my answer more general. The ranch where we facilitate most of our sessions, Buffalo Meadows in Redlands, has about 120 horses in total. Out of all these horses, I use about 5 consistently. I chose them for their personalities, background and experiences and of course, safety. One of my best therapy horses is a retired racehorse named "Sky". He was a "throw away" and labeled to be dangerous, angry and just plain crazy. In reality, he was misunderstood, scared, and in pain. As it turned out, he is the kindest, most loving and gentle soul and a wonderful teacher. He is the prime example of what can happen to an animal, whether equine or human, when being labeled and judged by the symptoms of their traumatic experiences. To me and to many of our Veterans, he represents hope and possibilities.

J.A.: What will a Veteran hope to learn from equine assisted therapy?

A.S.: Our primary objective is to provide our Veterans with the necessary coping skills that they can apply on their own at any time. The first step in this process is self-awareness and taking responsibility. Many times this has already been established, at least in part, which is why they have come to see us.

Learning how to regulate one's own nervous system and managing energy levels is the foundation of this program. The horse is the perfect teacher for that. Once these tools are in place, we can then focus on more specific issues or triggers and process through them, again, with the help of our horses and a mental health professional.

Banks helping a Service Member

Although this treatment option has been proven to be very successful, it is not a cure all and it's not for everybody. This is experiential meaning hands-on, outdoors, at a ranch, in the dirt.

J.A.: What are some of the issues you help Veterans with?

A.S.: Everyone has their own challenges. We do not need a diagnosis to admit to ourselves that there might be some issues that should be addressed and worked on.  We all have them. However, many of our Veterans find themselves dealing with common symptoms of PTSD such as anxiety, hyper vigilance, anger, and/or depression. This affects every aspect of life, work, family, friends, and overall quality of life.  We address the issues that the client is willing and ready to work on, whatever that may be for that individual. It looks different every time.

J.A.: How does a veteran feel after his last session?

A.S.: Never having served in the military myself, I was only a spouse, I would never presume to know how a Veteran feels at any given time. However, I do know how a military career affects the family. I know that feeling all too well.

Recently I asked a similar question of a former client who has since become a friend and volunteer of our program and whose feedback I value tremendously. His answer was: "When this horse followed me and told me he trusts me, I realized that it was OK for me to trust myself." Sounds familiar?

Sky with members from the 163rd MARB

Others have told us that they feel peaceful and calm after working with the horses.  Very recently, a client and his wife came to their session, noticeably agitated. It was apparent that he had a bad day and on a scale from 1 to 10, he rated his anxiety at a 12. After session, he gave it a 1 and the two of them went on to go out for a nice dinner.

What we hope to achieve in these sessions are feelings of peacefulness, calmness, confidence and trust. It's the power of gentleness. 

J.A.: How do you feel when a Veteran goes through this experience?

A.S.: I had to think about this for a while. There is so much that happens during sessions that sometimes you can't help but get emotional right alongside your client. But if I had to sum it up I would say I feel mostly grateful. When you see a person form a connection with the horse based on trust and respect or you see them have their own "aha" moments, there is a physical change in that individual. When you see a person find peace within themselves, it is incredibly rewarding. I couldn't imagine ever doing anything else and for that I am grateful.

J.A.: Besides Veterans and their families, who else can benefit from Equus Medendi?

Sky bonding with a Veteran

A.S.: Although our primary focus has been our Veterans and their families, we have also continued working with adolescents and young adults who have experienced trauma. Whether they come from less than perfect homes or are simply a product of their environment, we found that the horses are able to bridge a gap with them that people even with the best intentions are not able to do. Parents and caretakers often come to us to help them understand and improve their relationships with their loved ones.

Many of us shy away from traditional talk therapy for a number of reasons. Equus Medendi is an alternative that doesn't have the typical stigma attached or the pressure put on to talk about specific traumatic incidences.  More often than not, a pathway to continue a journey of healing and self-improvement is started here. I would say that anyone who doesn't mind getting a little dusty and recognizes that they need help but is hesitant about traditional types of therapy can benefit from Equus Medendi.

We also offer teambuilding and leadership workshops for all different types of organizations. These Corporate trainings are a fun and insightful way to strengthen any group dynamic. This picture for example is of CSUSB's own Counseling Center Staff.

Staff from CSUSB's Psychological Counseling Center

J.A.: What are your goals for the future with Equus Medendi?

A.S.: On an organizational level, our goals are to continue to raise the number of people that we are able to serve and to add more locations to expand our reach. We hope to gain additional support and build further collaborations with other like-minded people and organizations.

The bigger picture however is a message; the message that veterans deserve to have alternative options. We are not all the same and not one thing works for everybody. Our service members need to know that there are programs available to them that don't require enormous amounts of red tape or money. With suicide rates of 22 Veterans a day (which by the way is a very conservative number) it is our responsibility to provide every possible treatment option and make it easily accessible. Equus Medendi is one of those options. That is our goal.

Sky with Angie Sheer

EQUUS MEDENDI web links: 

Homepage of Equus Medendi

Equus Medendi on Facebook

Equus Medendi on Twitter

Video on Equus Medendi by San Bernardino County Department of Veteran Affairs

... he understands

All photos courtesy of Equus Medendi Inc.

The interview was conducted by Jorge Aguayo. He is a combat-decorated Marine who served with the Third Marine Division as an infantryman. He participated in Desert Storm, Desert Shield from 1990-1991 assisting with the liberation of Kuwait.  Jorge Aguayo has been involved with Written by Veterans from the start and recently published two books: VITA, a collection of poetry and a screenplay entitled MY WORST ENEMY. You can read an interview with Jorge Aguayo here.