A University of Missouri study of 29 veterans shows that the participants had a significant decline in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, scores just weeks after prescribed therapeutic horseback riding. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs after exposure to life-threatening events or injuries and is marked by flashbacks, avoidance, and changes in beliefs and feelings, according to Mizzou Nursing professor Rebecca Johnson. She says the interaction between horses and riders has been demonstrated to increase riders’ confidence, self-esteem, sensory sensitivity, and social motivation while reducing stress.

Rebecca Johnson

PTSD symptoms were measured at three weeks and six weeks into the program using the PTSD Checklist-Military Version (PCL-M) assessment, a 20-item self-reporting survey that is used by clinicians to gauge PTSD symptoms. Additionally, other measurement instruments were used to assess improvements made in the treatment of the anxiety disorders.

Results show that participants experienced a nearly 67% decline in PTSD scores after three weeks of therapy and an 87% drop after six weeks.

“Interestingly, the veterans who self-identified for the study all were from the Vietnam War era meaning that some of these military veterans had been experiencing PTSD symptoms for 40 or 50 years. It may be important for health care systems to support THR as a viable complimentary therapy,” she says.

Johnson also serves as the Director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.

More than 23 million military veterans are estimated to experience PTSD symptoms each year. Counseling and behavior therapies are often prescribed, but sometimes clinicians will encourage complementary therapies like therapeutic horseback riding.