A pilot project using horses to help emergency responders and military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is underway on a ranch west of Calgary.

Jessica Van Der Hoek, a paramedic for the past 18 years, says she had gotten “burnt out” about 10 years ago and took a leave of absence from her job.

“I went on disability and it was suggested to me to go and see a psychologist. I just thought that I was really tired and really angry and if I could just go home and get six months of sleep and not be around other people, I would be just fine. I actually had no idea I had PTSD until the psychologist told me.”

She ended up trying regular therapy and even medication to help her with her struggles but when she started working with horses, she found the animals really resonated with her.

“It was when I was around them that I started to do the real deep processing work that’s difficult for people to do.”

She says she wanted to share her findings with others in her position, so began Prairie Sky Equine Assisted Therapy about 10 years ago.

Mark Kolodziej, a certified psychotherapist that works with Prairie Sky, says equine therapy works because horses have a natural therapeutic effect.

“We have known for a very long time that the gift of touch, whether its human or animal touch, secretes dopamine and oxytocin in the brain and these are ‘feel good’ hormones.”

Kolodziej says horses have the added benefit over people because they are unassuming and will take people as they are.

“It gives the individual a lot of confidence and gets those hormones stimulated in the brain.”

All the participants of the pilot program are able to function on their jobs, but Kolodziej says they’re suffering.

“They’re in tremendous pain and what we want to do is take that pain away. Some of the people are feeling pain and can’t function properly but many, many people can function and do function properly.”

Van Der Hoek wants people to know that it really doesn’t take that much for people to suffer a mental health injury.

“When we’re feeling health and well, we can be quite resilient. When we have little things chip away at our armour or our resiliency… it makes you very susceptible to having a mental health injury. In the job that we do, there are a lot of things that chip away at our resiliency.”

She says the program has helped her by giving her a sense of purpose and place to feel connected.

“It’s really hard to find that when you’re suffering because you’re not at your very best at that point. It’s hard to be around other people because there is a lot of judgment and a lot of shame whereas, with the horses, there is none of that. They’re just happy to see you.”

The organization is also looking for funding to help cover costs so that sufferers won’t need to pay the full price of the services.

“We want people to have access to what we’re doing. We don’t want people to say ‘well, I’m going to pay for food or I’m going to pay for therapy’ because that’s actually what’s going on right now. That’s the biggest reason holding people back from getting therapy.”

Once the pilot program wraps up, the hope is to have the actual program in place in April.

(With files from Jaclyn Brown)