And now, the UNT doctoral student has embarked on a research project to find out how much they can help.
Sheade is examining the effectiveness of equine-partnered counseling – when counselors work with horses to offer therapy to military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling while working with UNT's Animal Assisted Therapy program.
"It became meaningful for me to give back to the people who are giving us so much to protect the country," says Sheade, who started riding horses when she was 5. "Everything is still really challenging for them when they come back. They have given up so much to go over there, and they come home, and it's not easy."
Sheade will use a single-case design with four to five participants. Veterans who qualify for the study will receive a weekly baseline assessment to assess their post-traumatic stress disorder for about three to five weeks before beginning the study. Counseling will then last for 18 weeks, and Sheade will continue to assess each veteran's post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the counseling sessions to look for changes. She will continue to assess the veterans for three weeks after the counseling sessions end to see if the benefits are maintained.
"The veteran will come in and tell us what he or she wants to work on," she says. "Some of them tell us a lot of detail, and some of them don't feel comfortable sharing detail. We direct them to their horse, so we try to make the horse a really integral part of the intervention. Some veterans will talk throughout the session; it depends on their individual needs."
Equine-assisted counseling differs from therapeutic horseback riding, she says.
"Therapeutic horseback riding is pretty popular, and most people know about that," she says. "Therapeutic horseback riding is teaching riding lessons to people with a variety of cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities, but does not need to be facilitated by credentialed health professionals. But equine-assisted counseling has to be facilitated by a licensed mental health professional."
Sheade says she came to UNT to study with Cynthia Chandler, professor of counseling at UNT and an internationally renowned expert in animal-assisted therapy. Chandler has helped Sheade develop her equine-assisted counseling practice, Equine Connection Counseling PLLC, located at Wings of Hope Equitherapy in Cleburne. Now a licensed professional counselor, Sheade is being guided and overseen in her doctoral dissertation by a committee of Sue Bratton, professor and director of the UNT Center for Play Therapy; Lisa Schulz, clinical assistant professor; and Chandler.
"Equine-assisted counseling provides benefits that traditional talk therapy cannot," Chandler says. "Working with a qualified therapy animal, such as a therapy horse, increases client motivation for participation out of a desire to spend time with the animal. Interaction with a therapy animal lowers client anxiety, and this calming effect helps the client feel safer and more comfortable with the therapy process. The different sights, sounds and smells involved with animal assisted therapy generates greater stimulation of client's senses and thus greater focus for a client during therapy, keeping the client actively engaged in the process. The nature of animal assisted counseling affords opportunities to help clients achieve therapeutic goals that for some might not otherwise be reached."
Sheade partners with Wings of Hope Equitherapy for her research and counseling practice. Anecdotally, she has found that veterans are improving after equine-assisted counseling, she says. Each veteran works in 45- to 50-minute sessions with a horse once a week.
"One of the first things they say is how peaceful and calm it is at the ranch compared to everything else in their lives, and it is easier for them to relax," she says.
Horses are "present-focused," Sheade explains, so they are tuned into their surroundings and ready to take off and flee if needed. As such, they are highly attuned to human body language, she says.
"A veteran may not realize he is becoming agitated, but the horse will react to that. The horse is almost a mirror for the veteran to get feedback," she says.
"If the veteran's internal state is shifting as they talk about their trauma, or they have difficulty regulating anger, the horse will clue them in by moving away or getting agitated themselves. That provides feedback to the veteran. Then we can use various relaxation techniques such as petting the horse to bring them to the present.
"As counselors, we try to be empathic with clients and show that we understand them," she says. "That is what horses do naturally. They don't judge the clients for how they are dressed or what they might have done or seen in combat, and that is an important thing for veterans. They may feel safer with the horse than with us because they know the horse is not judging them; they know the horse is not lying or tricking them."
And simply petting the animal can help, she says.
"From the physiological perspective, researchers have found that by petting an animal, it can decrease anxiety and increase oxytocin, the social connecting hormone, and decrease cortisol, a stress hormone," she says.
She hopes this study can help other counselors looking for ways to help patients.
"Right now, there is not a lot of empirical research; it is mostly anecdotal or qualitative," she says. "So my goal is to increase more awareness of this intervention overall and especially in treating military veterans."
She plans to graduate with her doctoral degree in December.