Calm. Confident. Able to breathe.
That's how Scott Engel feels when he interacts with horses.
A retired Navy officer, Engel said he came out of the military with stress and anxiety issues. Watching and spending time with horses, however, allows him to relax.
"My friends and family who have known me for years say that they see progress in me just by connecting with the horses," he said. "Getting close to something that big, and breathing with it really helps me to breathe and calm down."
This is one possible result of equine-assisted therapy, which was demonstrated Monday at Reins of Change in Elgin.
The session was organized by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, a Utah-based nonprofit that provides mental health treatment through interaction with horses.
Lynn Thomas, co-founder and executive director of EAGALA, said she has witnessed the difference that interacting with horses can make in someone's life, especially someone who has been in the military.
"Equine therapy provides a very emotionally safe environment," Thomas said. "It's all about healing."
Monday's exercise included an arena allowing interaction among four horses and members of the Illinois National Guard, Oak Park Vet Center, USO of Illinois and other military service providers.
Dr. Paula Schnurr, acting executive director for the National Center for Post-traumatic stress disorder, said anyone returning from a war zone goes through a period of readjustment.
"If a person hasn't been in combat, it's hard to fully understand what the experience is like," Schnurr said. "So many veterans, whether or not they have PTSD, may find it challenging to fit back into the civilian world."
Schnurr said the Department of Veterans Affairs has a practice for veterans to follow if they return seeking medical attention. It includes medication and psychotherapies that specifically help a veteran or service member cope with and process trauma.
Often, she said, people benefit from complementary or alternate approaches to therapy, such as equine-assisted psychotherapy. They offer companionship, as well as support for the people who are participating, Schnurr said. They also can benefit from a sense of accomplishment in learning something new.
Thomas said those seeking equine-assisted therapy can reach out to EAGALA-certified facilities like Reins for Change.
Equine therapy can go beyond treating the veterans, said Mindi Ernst, director of family programs for the Illinois National Guard. Families and children of service members also can benefit.
"The horses give them a common denominator," Ernst said.
For Sheila Perry, an Active Guard Reserve, interacting with horses is a trust exercise and a "reflection of yourself."
"Once you overcome the trust issues, and that horse trusts you, it'll pretty much follow you anywhere," she said. "That plays a big role in our own relationships. When you learn how to trust, you can become better."