FARGO--When Joe Moyer brushes Crocket, a sometimes temperamental 1,100-pound horse, he feels better.
"I feel a lot less anxious," he said.
Moyer, a U.S. Army veteran, participated in a trial program at North Dakota State University this summer that used horses to help veterans more fully engage in their surroundings and connect with others.
"This is an experiment we've been talking about for a long time," said Jeri Vaudrin, project coordinator for Veterans Educational Training, a program that provides free services for veterans to go back to school.
NDSU's Equine Science and Veterans Educational Training programs teamed up to offer the horsemanship classes.
Erika Berg, an associate professor in NDSU's Department of Animal Sciences, said horses depend on reading their surroundings to survive.
"If a horse is nervous or a person is nervous, the horse might be reflecting what that person is feeling or they might be feeling nervous themselves," she said. "It gives us an opportunity to examine our own mood, our own anxiety level."
Many veterans in the VET program have post-traumatic stress disorder or other traumatic brain injuries, Vaudrin said.
"There have been a lot of studies out there that have shown the benefits of working with horses if we're dealing with veterans who have PTSD or TBI," she said. "It helps calm them. It helps show a reflection of what their own agitation level is."
Blake Sykes, an Army National Guard and Army Reserve veteran, said the classes have been very rewarding.
"Because I've lived alone and always in a rental unit of some kind, I've never been able to have a pet of my own, so it's been a long time since I've had a bond with an animal."
He said he didn't expect to bond with a horse in the program, but after several weeks of working with Pepper, they formed a close connection.
The program, Berg said, lets participants focus on the present.
"They live in the moment, and so we sort of have to do the same thing," she said.
Four veterans participated in the weekly program, which started in May and finished this past week.
"It's been really successful," Vaudrin said. "Some of them have never worked with horses before and it's been quite a learning experience."
Moyer is one of the participants who has never worked with horses. Though Crocket could be difficult, they ended up working well together.
"They're 1,100-pound dogs, for the most part," he said. "It's a good program, a good way to help veterans calm down during their daily lives."
Whether the program continues depends on funding, practicality and whether potential studies can be done with it. Both Berg and Vaudrin said they would like to see it continue. One of Berg's ultimate goals, she said, is to research equine-assisted therapy for veterans.
"It's been really neat to see that everybody's mood improved almost every week," she said. "Anxiety levels have decreased almost every week, and we're just seeing more openness, I guess, from participants, talking with one another and with us and connecting with the horses."