“Leave your attitude outside the barn.”
Anyone who has worked with horses knows this motto. If you are in a bad mood, odds are your horse will feel the same way. It was with this mindset that Steve Critchley set out to help Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and other Occupational Stress Injuries (OSI) using horses.
“Horses provide honest, instant feedback without any agendas,” says Critchley, one of the co-founders of Can Praxis, a program designed to help veterans and their spouses across Canada. “They just tell you what they see, and how it affects them.”
How the horses help
Critchley explains that the way a horse reacts to a veteran’s emotions is a representation of how family and friends would react when confronted with similar emotional stresses from their loved ones. The only difference is that a family’s reaction to stress could cause problems in their relationships. Therapy animals like horses, while intuitive, are able to empathize with a patient’s suffering, without adding to their stress by bringing their own judgments and feelings into the conversation.
That seed for Can Praxis formed about six years ago, when Critchley’s wife threw a horse’s halter at him in the middle of an argument and told him to go talk to his horse instead. He stomped outside onto his 40 acre stretch of land and realized his bad attitude would only warn the horse off, making it incredibly difficult to catch the animal. Realizing this, he calmed down and was able to go for a ride.
“When PTSD is introduced into someone’s life, conflict and crisis will become the norm for them,” he says. “We understand that if there is no conversation, there will be no resolution, so we focus on teaching couples basically how to communicate, and self-mediation.”
PTSD diagnosis increases
According to a report done by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, the number of diagnosed veterans with PTSD more than doubled between 2007 and 2015, to total 14,375 sufferers.
With the help of organizations such as Wounded Warriors Canada and Can Praxis, many of these veterans are able to seek out the care they need to heal. The name Can Praxis is meant to embody “the Canadian can do attitude, and putting theory into practice,” says Critchley. Essentially, it means to walk the talk.
The nationwide program is operated from two locations across the country. The Western Canada division is organized out of a barn in Rocky Mountain House, which is owned by the program’s other co-founder, psychologist Jim Marland.
When Critchley and Marland first tried to start the program, they were met with skepticism, but Wounded Warriors Canada decided to take a chance on them and provided $4,000 in funding. Since then, the funding for the program has increased to $200,000 from Wounded Warriors Canada. Can Praxis pays for the participants to take part in the program, covering their flights, accommodation and food. The program has so far helped over 150 couples.
Bringing the fight home
Former Canadian Forces member Brent and his wife Kristina recently completed the first phase of the Can Praxis program. The Calgary Journal is not disclosing their surnames to protect their identities, out of the couple’s concern that disclosure may subject them to the stigma associated with PTSD.
Kristina and Brent met during a night out in Toronto in 2013, and the two instantly clicked, marrying after two years of dating. However, during their first year of marriage the couple had to live apart because of Brent’s assignment as a vehicle technician on-site at a military base. Every weekend, Brent would drive five hours each way to see his wife. He had spent seven and a half years in the military by this time, during which he developed an Occupational Stress Injury (OSI).
Brent shared what he could about the injury with his wife, but it was an emotionally taxing topic for him to discuss. The OSI had been brought about by a physical injury, and he saw his health deteriorate rapidly. His military unit, friends and staff turned away from him. The intense stress of having to deal with this over the years eventually led to further mental health complications.
Brent described the intense anxiety and deep depression that began to creep into his life and affected his relationship with his wife.
“Everyone feels depression and anxiety, but it is the level and the intensity they feel it at,” he explained, voice faltering.
“The frequency of the depression was far more intense and far more frequent. It is like a six out of 10 all the time, the anxiety, for me.”
Brent suffered suicidal thoughts and anger as side effects of his depression, which caused him to begin isolating himself from the people and activities he once loved. He didn’t understand why he felt this way, but he says this was one of the problems Can Praxis helped him to understand. They helped to fill the void of loneliness — a common thread for the other PTSD and OSI sufferers Brent has spoken to.
“They put an emphasis on letting you know you are part of a group of people who are going through the same things,” says Brent. “Which is really helpful in dealing with this, because then you don’t feel like you’re alone. Most of us feel like we are on our own dealing with this.”
The couple explained they had looked into pre-marital therapy, but with seeing each other only on weekends they felt they didn’t have the time. Moving to Calgary earlier this year and finally living together meant they could seek out alternative solutions. Can Praxis looked to be a promising option.
Putting theory into practice
Phase one of the program splits the veterans and their spouses apart for most of the time, allowing both Critchley and Marland to work to their own strengths. The spouses are taught to understand what veterans are going through, how to handle it, and to celebrate the little victories in their mutual path to healing. During the weekend retreat Kristina says Critchley recites his motto to remind the spouses to appreciate those small steps: “Small, small, small, small.”
“Can Praxis didn’t eliminate conflict from our relationship, and we still have conflict,” she says with a smile, acknowledging that finding help is only the first step in recovery for her and her husband. “We still have challenges, and we still have areas to work on, [but] I find that I appreciate the little good things. I am thankful for them and I am more inclined to recognize them. It helps me to see things more positively, to see Brent in a more positive light, and to also see myself in a better way.”
For Brent, and veterans like him, the program is exhausting and emotionally draining, especially when the horses would react negatively to Brent’s anxiety by ignoring him during the exercises. He remembers a drill where they stood behind the horse as it ran around the corral. They were instructed to flick a whip to keep the animal moving. Brent ended up flicking it too fast, scaring the horse into a gallop.
Since completing phase one of the program, Brent and Kristina have chosen to work on some of the things they learned during the weekend course before moving on to the next phase. The full Can Praxis program includes three phases that couples can complete over a period of time which suits them.
Dr. Randy Jackson of the University of Saskatchewan has been working alongside Critchley and Marland to record the effects of the program on participants. Jackson reported that veterans felt an average 97 per cent relief of their symptoms right after participation. After two years, the relief of these symptoms is typically 65-75 per cent. According to Critchley, this is one of the highest rates in North America.
“I have noticed a difference,” says Brent of the effects the course has had on his own mental health thus far. “We don’t feel like there is no hope anymore. There is definitely hope now. We know there are strategies and tools we can work with. Can Praxis isn’t the end all be all of problems, but it gave us some tools to work with and to know we are not alone.”
- By Andrea Roberts