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Arabian Horses Help Veteran Work Through Trauma

There was a time when Chance Burles couldn’t find peace.

The Afghan war veteran’s bad dreams were keeping him up at night, waking him every 20 minutes.

“I was massively stressed out and angry all the time,” Burles said.

At first he chalked the feelings up to being posted to a job he didn’t like. But the stress didn’t let up, even after he took a new assignment in Ontario. At the suggestion of his wife back in Edmonton, Burles saw a doctor on base to get help with his sleep. In 2012, after being referred to a base psychologist, Burles was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Burles’ PTSD was directly linked to his 2008 eight-month tour in Afghanistan. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, people can develop PTSD after experiencing events involving the threat of death, injury or violence, such as crime, war or natural disasters. PTSD can leave sufferers feeling irritable, emotionally numb or living with a sense of dread.

Gary Millar is the owner of Millar Venture Arabians, a 40-acre horse farm near Fort Saskatchewan. He runs a horse-based learning and therapy program called Equus Alive. One of his offerings is a workshop meant to help people develop resiliency to trauma.

At the heart of the workshops is a herd of Arabian horses.

During sessions at the farm, participants give the Arabians simple commands, guiding them through basic moves like walk or stop. The horses are living mirrors, picking up on subtle cues and giving instant feedback. When participants are anxious or stressed, the animals notice. They may pull away, or become too agitated to pay attention. To get the horses to respond, people need to work through their

feelings on the spot.

“The Arabians are a very sensitive horse,” said Millar. “They pick up on emotions that you may not even realize, that are buried really deep in your subconscious.”

Burles, who grew up around horses in southern Alberta, originally came to Millar’s farm to get his riding levels back up after his years in the military. In the ensuing months, he ended up finding a special connection with the Arabians.

“Everything we did in Afghanistan was ‘Am I safe? Are the guys behind me safe? Is this guy coming up to me? Why does he look suspicious? Is he a threat? Is he not?’” Burles said. “And that’s how a horse views the world. They’re prey animals.”

Two-year-old Moonlight Sonata is one of Burles’ favourites. He works with her every couple of weeks, training her in manners. The former master corporal was with her in the barn one windy day when a rock hit the side of the building. What Burles heard was a gunshot.

“I went right through the roof.” The horse immediately reacted. “She started bouncing up and down trying to get away from me and trying to pull away because I went from totally calm to really, really agitated very quickly.”

Burles, who has had help from health professionals to manage his PTSD, uses breathing techniques and other strategies to get back in the moment, away from painful memories. When he calms down, so does the horse, letting them both get back to work.

Millar is not a psychologist, and he says his program isn’t meant to heal or cure. But connecting with the horses, Burles is finding the peace that once eluded him. He’s learned to leave behind the go-go-go military mindset and find a way to just be okay in the moment.

“When you work with the horses for any amount of time, you start to realize that you have to be here. Twenty minutes down the road doesn’t matter. It’s all about mindfulness.”

Retired from the forces since 2013, Burles is studying business administration at NAIT with plans to open his own therapy-focused ranch for trauma survivors. He hopes to break ground sometime in 2020.

More information on Millar’s programs is available at the Equus Alive website.

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