A Natural Approach to Support Clients in Recovery for PTSD

According to a recent scientific report by the Defence Research and Development Canada Toronto Research Centre, approximately 14% of Canadian Armed Forces personnel who had been deployed to Afghanistan had (or continue to have?) a mental health disorder linked to an Afghan mission.[1] Yoga, mindfulness, and EMDR are all therapy practices, approaches, or techniques used to help treat and support people in recovery from PTSD and substance abuse.  But what about using horses?

The ability to live in the present and just shut off all the voices in one’s head are some of the challenges clients in Bellwood Health Services’ Addiction and PTSD/OSI treatment program face on a daily basis. FEEL, Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning, is an experience that Bellwood has introduced to our clients and is having a very positive effect on how our clients feel and proceed on their path towards recovery.

Bellwood is always searching for new ways to support clients through new and innovative methods that can take our clients one step further towards a stronger recovery. We’d like to share our experience using FEEL for our inpatient clients in the Addiction and PTSD/OSI program. Although there isn’t much research available about FEEL, our experience has been encouraging and this may be something that you’ll want to try as part of your recovery.

When our PTSD treatment team heard that FEEL was being used to help people struggling with PTSD, trauma and anxiety issues, they were anxious to learn more about it. At the quaint Renegade Ridge Farm in Ontario called The Mane Intent, Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning is a service that our clients and many other groups access for various reasons.

As described on The Mane Intent’s website, FEEL is a practice that focuses on “restoring the balance of intellectual, physical, emotional and intuitive” abilities of people. “Trust is negotiated between horse and human- each has to earn it from the other. Because each person and each horse experiences the other uniquely on their own terms, the experience is tailored to each participant or group of participants.”

How it Works

Essentially, a goal is set for the meet and greet between the client and the horse. The interaction a person has with the horse takes place in a safe and controlled environment. No riding is actually involved. The activity can range anywhere from letting the horses roam free, to being led in a line or guided. Horses have the natural ability to sense how we feel; all those emotions are taken in by the horse at every moment – consciously and unconsciously.

Horses are natural coaches. How we feel, breathe, and move are pieces of information that a horse takes in, registers, then exhibits back in a non-judgmental manner. The Mane Intent recommends going with an open heart and mind, free of expectation so that you can experience the gift of insight.

Bellwood PTSD and Substance Abuse Treatment Team at The Mane Intent

According to Michael Hartmann, Team Lead for the Addiction and PTSD/OSI program at Bellwood, “The goal is to provide a means for clients to get in touch with their emotions and build confidence in their ability to manage their PTSD.” Jennifer Garland, owner of The Mane Intent along with her husband Chris Van Den Berg, shares, “There is a growing body of experience that supports the benefits of horse-based experiential learning for veterans and first responders with PTSD. With facilitated equine experiential learning, the activities with the horses become a metaphor for what is happening in the participant’s life, and provide a mirror to reflect back information about their personality, communication style, and coping responses.” Clients can explore their fears and learn to build trust in themselves and others in a safe and supportive environment.

Does It Work For Everyone?

Jennifer shares, “I think the effectiveness of any treatment is really dependent on the individual and how open they are to the experience. It’s important to note that The Mane Intent provides facilitated equine experiential learning,  not equine therapy. While not designed or intended to replace more commonly used treatments, FEEL can be used TOGETHER with traditional forms of therapy to help those with PTSD or addiction experience greater wellness and stress management.”

Jennifer describes horses as natural receivers and givers. “Horses have their own perceptions and emotions, and can attune themselves to the presence and feelings of others. They live in the moment and they don’t have an agenda. Through their remarkable sensitivity, perceptiveness, and intuition, our horses offer valuable feedback and information to our clients.”

How Bellwood Clients Feel About the Program

So far, our clients have experienced many benefits from the experience. Some of the client testimonies are:

  • “I learned that my feelings inside can affect others around me even if I think I am calm. I can read myself to make sure that I am.”
  • “Do not be afraid to try new things.”
  • “…let go of anger.”
  • “They had no expectation; did not judge you but reflected any feelings.”
  • “To accept that I need to release control in order for others to get close to me equals vulnerable.”
  • “Let myself go and LIVE in the moment.”
  • “A very worthwhile experience that allowed me to smile, just for who I am with no expectations on me or the horse.”
  • “This experience was most enjoyable and thoroughly therapeutic. A great glimpse of the future me.”
  • “To be open to the experience, feel the deep emotions the horses bring, and be open to the “woo hoo” things, because it really isn’t “woo hoo.”
  • “To release control and accept myself so that others can feel accepted and then we can go on our journey together; knowing self is true wisdom- mastering self is true power.”


Why Bellwood Uses Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning

Bellwood introduced FEEL to clients to help them experience a greater awareness of themselves. Jennifer shares, “ultimately, they help people build personal resilience and connect to possibility.” Using horses as facilitators of change, clients learn to:

  • Become aware of subtleties of verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Improve attention, mindfulness and focusing abilities
  • Become aware of incongruence of intention versus behaviour
  • Identify and respect boundaries with ourselves and with others
  • Confront insecurities and develop confidence
  • Adjust to the relativity of time, expanding the moment
  • Cope with stress, grief and unexpected setbacks.


Although there is limited research about FEEL, we continue to witness positive results and receive great feedback from our clients with addiction and post traumatic stress disorder or an occupational stress injury.

If you’d like to learn more about Bellwood’s Addiction and PTSD/ OSI treatment program, please give us a call 1-800-387-6198 or email info@bellwood.ca.



The Mane Intent

Moral Injury in Military Operations

[1] Megan M. Thompson: Moral Injury in Military Operations: A Review of the Literature and Key Considerations for the Canadian Armed Forces: Defence Research and Development Canada Toronto Research Centre: Scientific Report: Toronto: 2015: https://cimvhr.ca/documents/DRDC-RDDC-2015-R029.pdf