Combat Veterans Cowboy Up (CVCU) is a 501©3 non-profit organization and retains all rights, including but not limited to: all information on CVCU’s website, brochures, videos, testimonials, and any and all intellectual properties arising from the development of this program.
Combat Veterans Cowboy Up aka CVCU was incorporated in 2006 and we received our 501©3 non-profit designation in 2008 with the sole purpose of developing an extremely effective recovery program for veterans suffering with the debilitating effects of PTSD—whether it be from combat, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or any other military-related trauma. CVCU incorporates Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning as the core methodology. The very unique techniques that have been developed over the years are proving to be the most effective treatment available today when used in conjunction with traditional mental health therapy. The next part of CVCU’s mission is to expand the program and facilities in order to serve up to 3,000 clients per year, and then to train other facilitators to open programs around the country based on this model. CVCU is in the process of obtaining needed funding from the private sector, the corporate sector and the Federal Government to accomplish this mission.
The CVCU management team and Board of Directors are currently made up of two very committed individuals, each from different backgrounds, bringing their distinct competencies to the organization.
The Founder and Executive Director: John Nash is a Vietnam Veteran, honorably discharged as a Specialist 5th Class. John grew up in Minnesota around horses. In 2006 John had a personal experience with horses that helped him realize that he had been suffering years of severe depression and PTSD. Through interaction with his wife’s horse, Rain, he discovered the powerful positive impact a horse can have on the issues being faced by veterans who have experienced trauma while in the military. Since early 2006, he has worked with conventional therapists and horses to overcome his mental “demons” and has developed a passion and dedication to help as many veterans as possible using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning (EAP/EAL). He firmly believes that CVCU has developed a unique way, using the relationship with horses to renew hope, trust, patience, confidence, and a firm sense of responsibility in troubled veterans.
Secretary of the Board: Ashley Vandeberghe is a young graduate student earning her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Adams State University. She completed her undergraduate internship at CVCU in the summer of 2013, and has been a volunteer for CVCU ever since. She became a part of the Board of Directors in June of 2015. Ashley volunteers by co-facilitating therapy sessions, caring for and training the horses, and as an administrator for the website and Facebook page. Ashley has always had a passion for horses. During her internship, she learned about Natural Horsemanship and developed a unique bond with each of CVCU’s horses. She, like John, believes in the power of equines to heal America’s veterans. She plans to stay with Combat Veterans Cowboy Up as their Mental Health Professional (MHP).
The following was written by CVCU’s founder, John Nash, as a description of the different manifestations of PTSD and its impact on the soldier or veteran after experiencing military related mental trauma.
The Military Mind
The susceptibility and even the propensity for PTSD begin the first day of Basic Training. In order to develop this awesome fighting machine, the first thing that is eliminated from the soldier’s psyche is individualism. He or she must not think about themselves but rather look out for the unit and their comrades. The soldier becomes fully dependent on the unit for protection, sustenance, social life and survival. Next, they are taught to not let their conscience or morals get in the way when it is time to make a split-second decision in combat that could determine survival or death to themselves and/or their comrades. The soldier must REACT to a threat or a perceived threat. They have to make their response to a predator (the enemy) immediate. If they take the time to think about it, they could be dead. The “military mind” must be fully integrated into warriors before actual combat in order to give them the best chance of survival and overcoming the enemy. The US military services do an excellent job of preparing soldiers for combat. The problem lies in that they do not prepare soldiers to integrate back into civilian life when they come home. This is what CVCU does in helping them build a new way of thinking, because the military mindset cannot be touched. CVCU guides clients in the development of a new positive mindset that is just as powerful as their military mindset.
There is no known “one-on-one” model for the CVCU program. However, the lessons and practices gained over the first seven years of CVCU’s existence, the certification for key staff in facilitating EAP/EAL, and the talents of the volunteers and staff do combine to provide the basis for operating a successful program.
Whether just arriving home from military service abroad, or still struggling with the psychological effects from a former trauma that threatens to never end in the psyche of the soldier trying to re-adapt to civilian life, CVCU can and does help!
Introduction to CVCU
Combat Veterans Cowboy Up incorporates both Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL). EAP/EAL is facilitated by a team consisting of an Equine Specialist (ES) and a Mental Health Professional (MHP) while utilizing horses as the medium for creating metaphors that can be directly related to the clients’ mental health issues and life experiences. The ES and the MHP have been specially trained and/or certified in facilitating EAP/EAL. Sessions are conducted on the ground (not mounted).
The recovery process at CVCU starts with a two hour orientation during which time the client is told what to expect from the program and what the staff expects from the client. Rules and regulations are discussed and, if the client decides to join the program, a liability waiver must be signed. The first session of the ten weekly session cycle is usually scheduled for the following week. It is very important that the person conducting the orientation is a Veteran with PTSD. By the end of orientation the facilitating team (ES and MHP) has gained the clients’ trust which is the first and biggest step for a client to achieve in order to start the recovery process.
Traditional Psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) takes clients suffering with military related PTSD to a certain level of recovery, but it seems that Veterans tend to get “stuck” in their recovery process. Combat Veterans Cowboy Up (CVCU), as an enhancement to Traditional Psychotherapy, helps clients get “unstuck” and move much further down the “road to recovery” in a relatively short period of time. It was the traumatic experiences that caused PTSD, and CVCU believes treatment must become experiential in order to maximize recovery. John Nash, a Vietnam Veteran who has military related PTSD, founded the CVCU organization and performs the function of the Equine Specialist during sessions with the Veteran clients. He has been working with clients who suffer from military related PTSD since 2006. Over the years he has developed the techniques used and facilitated well over 1,500 sessions.
Since its inception in 2006, CVCU has provided equine therapies in a non-residential weekly program to 60 Veterans who are suffering from PTSD, all at no cost to the Veteran. Talk of suicide might be heard from many clients at the beginning of therapy, but after a few sessions, that talk ceases and the clients begin talking about their future. Some have decided to attend college, others have re-entered the workforce and others are volunteering and making a difference in society.
CVCU has had extensive media coverage about their program and its superior effectiveness in treating veterans with PTSD. Media sources such as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ program The American Veteran (which airs on The Pentagon Channel), and Denver’s channels 4, 7 and 9 have done stories on the extreme effectiveness of CVCU. The Western Horseman magazine (the most widely read equine magazine in the world) and local newspapers have also done stories. We’ve also been filmed as part of the award-winning documentary The Invisible War (directed by Kirby Dick), and Justice Denied, a similar documentary that covers non-traditional therapies such as the techniques used by CVCU. In 2015, we were filmed for Steffan Tubbs’ ground-breaking documentary ACRONYM: The Cross-Generational Battle With PTSD.
Veterans who have returned from trauma are experiencing tremendous recovery at CVCU along with more conventional treatments they are receiving from their psychiatrists and therapists. However, this program is not recommended to replace conventional treatments and therapies. CVCU fully intends to form a dynamic partnership with The Department of Veterans Affairs and The Department of Defense to help move our veterans much further down “the road to recovery”. The extraordinary benefits to the veteran, their families, government, taxpayers, law enforcement, judicial system and society in general is documented further in this narrative.
The driving forces behind the development of this program are:
- That the VA and DOD should support programs that have “raised the bar” of recovery, whether those programs use traditional or non-traditional methods.
- That all veterans deserve to begin healing from the ravages of mental trauma and to enjoy emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and mental health.
- That the best practices from CVCU and Traditional Psychotherapy should be understood and implemented for the benefit of our veterans.
- That in providing mental health care to a veteran, the best interests of the client will always be paramount.
Gaining Trust Between Predator and Prey
After the trauma, the soldier is expected to transition back into a civilian lifestyle. This is very difficult because everyday life as a soldier and everyday life as a civilian are worlds apart. Even though they are in the civilian world, some people and places still seem threatening. Once a highly trained soldier and predator, the client now feels like the horse, like prey.
The biggest physical difference between predator and prey is the spacing of the eyes. The first thing animals look at when encountering another animal is its eyes. Predators typically have narrow-spaced eyes (like cats, dogs, and humans) and prey animals usually have wide-set eyes (like horses, cows, deer, and rabbits). Not only is the human a natural predator, but a soldier becomes the greatest predator/warrior ever because of the best training, weapons, armor and comrades. Since horses are prey animals, a horse is naturally a little leery when being approached by a human with predator eyes.
In order to get a horse to do what you want, you have to gain the horse’s trust. This is a process—it doesn’t automatically happen. The horse senses if you trust it and will reciprocate with trusting you a little, then you trust the horse a little more, and then the horse trusts you more, etc. When a real trusting relationship is developed the horse wants to please you, if it understands the non-verbal communication you are giving. The weight of an average horse is 1,100 pounds and can be intimidating at first, but when a client gets that huge animal to do something, there is such a feeling of confidence and control. An increase in self-esteem becomes apparent as the client’s body language changes and the client begins verbalizing the rewards of accomplishing the activity with the horse. Horses are experts at reading body language—that’s how they communicate in the herd. The horse also reads the client’s body language as part of the non-verbal communication. The Equine Specialist on the team must know “The Language of the Horse”—the body language used by horses. By reading the horse’s body language, the Equine Specialist knows when something changes with the client and passes that information to the Mental Health Professional (MHP).
In order to accomplish the activity presented to the client in a session, the horse and client must build a trusting relationship and become comrades. Camaraderie with past fellow soldiers is something that is dearly missed by clients. A horse will accept a human into the herd once trust is gained. Acceptance typically follows with the other horses in the herd.
In order to prevent another traumatic experience for the client, should something terminal happen to a horse, CVCU often changes horses that are used in session. This is so a client doesn’t establish an attachment to a particular horse. By learning to deal with totally different personalities in the herd of horses, a metaphor is created: the client realizes that people also have different personalities and may require the client to be flexible in how he/she deals with different people in their human herd. It also shows the client that they can start rebuilding their human herd in the same manner as they are learning to build their horse herd. Each time the client approaches a horse they have to allow time for the horse to feel comfortable. Without trust you cannot move forward and feel confident in this horse-human relationship.
If you are riding a horse down a trail and a mountain lion jumps out in front of the horse, the horse’s response is almost always “flight”. If you are going down the same trail and a plastic bag blows across the front of the horse, the “flight response” is exactly the same as if it were a mountain lion. Whether the predator is real or perceived, the response is the same. Veterans with PTSD perceive that many places and people are threats; and since they are predators, the “fight response” kicks in—whether that response is verbal or physical (after all, they are trained fighters and are operating on their reactive side of the brain). Reacting without thinking is what gets them in so much trouble. Our jails and prisons have many Veterans, who may have been stopped for a speeding ticket, but they perceived the officer to be a threat, and the fight response came forward from the reactive side of their brain and they ended up with assault charges, resisting arrest or worse. We teach our clients to practice thinking before they react. The human mind can operate at “warp speed”. The following three questions are taught early and with practice can be asked and answered in one’s mind in a fraction of a second whenever the client feels issues start to well up:
“If I go off here, what is the worst thing that could possibly happen?” Answer!
“What are the consequences of that?” Answer!
“Am I willing to accept those consequences?” (Almost always, the answer to this question is “NO”.)
The Herd vs. The Bunker
Veterans suffering with PTSD don’t realize how they come across to other people. They begin to chase away their “human herd”. Rather than trying to figure out why their “human herd” is leaving, the veteran tends to isolate. If a horse is totally isolated from the herd, it’s mental and physical health deteriorate and can even lead to death. Likewise, veterans who isolate themselves by “bunkering up” have a deterioration of mental and physical health that can also lead to premature death. Humans, like horses, do much better when in their herds.
Learning by Repetition
A horse has two sides to the brain: the reactive side and the thinking side. The reactive side has all the survival instincts, defense mechanisms, habits and things that the thinking side has experienced enough times that it has moved to the reactive side. A horse can’t learn anything while it is on the reactive side. You must get the horse to move to the thinking side-the learning side. The trouble is that the horse operates almost entirely on the reactive side. Although a human, who by nature is a predator and typically spends much more time on the thinking side, veterans with PTSD become more like the horse and spend most of their time on the reactive side. Soldiers are trained by using repetition from our military instructors until the training moves to the reactive side – we react without thinking. If we take the time to think when under fire we could be killed. This “military mind” is at least half of the reason we get stuck while trying to recover from PTSD. We are also taught to wait for orders. Someone else will do the thinking and we will follow orders immediately and to the “T”. Just as a muscle will atrophy from not being used, so will the thinking side of our brain. We have been on the reactive side of our brains for so long that it is very hard to move ourselves to the thinking side. In order to move further down the “road to recovery”, we must consciously force ourselves to the thinking side so we can learn how to recover. Working with and training horses, the veteran builds a metaphor about moving the horse to the thinking side and understands that they must do the same in order to learn the recovery process.
A NEW WAY OF THINKING
A Different Kind of War
In most wars before Vietnam, there were lines of defense (front lines) and safe zones (the rear); and in those wars the enemy usually wore uniforms that identified them. In Vietnam and all the skirmishes and wars since, the enemy does not wear uniforms that distinguish them from regular civilians. Therefore, our soldiers as a survival technique can’t trust any civilian-looking person to not be the enemy. That civilian-looking person could be the very one that will pull the trigger on the soldier. There have been many estimates as to what the average time under fire or in an enemy zone is for soldiers before Vietnam and those after. Average is inclusive of all support personnel. The exact average will never be known, but the average time under fire before Vietnam was measured in hours or days while since it is measured by 24/7 every day of every week of every month of every year. The modern day soldier must be in a hyper-vigilant state at all times, another survival technique. OF COURSE there is more prevalence of PTSD now than there was of “battle fatigue” or “shell shock” in previous wars.
The human mind is very powerful. If a comparison is made between the world’s largest computer and the subconscious mind for storage capacity, the mind wins hands down. Everything we have ever seen, smelled, heard, touched or imagined is stored there. The storage part closest to the conscious mind is full of the things that the human has brought to their conscious the most number of times. We learn by repetition, just as the horse does. We also think in pictures, not words. When we recall memories from our subconscious or that huge storage area, it comes to the conscious as pictures or like a video playing again. Those videos and pictures can be consciously called forward or they can come forward from a “trigger”, something we see, hear, smell, and feel or the perception of seeing, hearing, smelling, or feeling. Our minds often can’t distinguish between something that is real or something that is perceived, and reacts like a “trigger” to bring forward related experiences that have been saved in the storage part of our brain. Everything that is in this storage area is either positive or negative. The positive things are stored experiences that make us feel good and contribute to an elevated quality of life whereas negative things contribute to lessen our quality of life and lower self-esteem and self-worth. Human nature makes it easier to take the negative route; it is much harder and takes much more effort and energy to take the positive one. Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) is taught and practiced as part of the program. One teaching technique is called the “bell ringers club”. Clients and facilitators sit in a circle. In the center of the circle is a table with a bell. One person becomes the speaker and has to tell about something positive that has happened in their life recently. If a person in the circle thinks the speaker is starting to talk negative, the bell is wrung by that person. A discussion follows about what the speaker said and if it truly was positive or negative. The next client becomes the speaker to tell something positive. If it becomes negative, the bell is rung and a discussion follows, and so on. It’s not long before the bell seems to move from the table to their minds in that they think about what they are going to say to make sure it won’t be negative. A Positive Mental Attitude is one of the cornerstones of the “Recovery Process”.
We have developed specialized techniques using horses to help the clients address the following issues and significantly lower the impact of these issues on their lives:
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)—the Umbrella and Symptoms
PTSD is an umbrella term and under that umbrella lays all the issues that are a detriment to the client’s ability to live a somewhat “normal” life. Issues such as depression, anger, anxiety, rage, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, relationship problems, survivors guilt, abandonment, hopelessness, little-if any-self-esteem, hyper-vigilance, loss of concentration, not good at multi-tasking, “bunkering up” or isolation, antitrust and many more. I call these issues “demons” and it is a battle to fight off these “demons” on a daily basis. Traditional Psychotherapy in conjunction with the very specialized techniques developed by Combat Veterans Cowboy Up teaches coping skills and methods that help the client fight the battle against those “demons”.
Anti-trust is actually a survival technique when in the combat theatre. We learn early on that we can’t trust anyone except our comrades. We depend on them to cover our backs and they depend on us to cover their backs. The problem is that when we return from the trauma, we continue this anti-trust against most people. In many cases, we don’t even trust our families and friends. The “trust” that is so critical to PTSD recovery takes time, communication, and patience –best done by those who have gone through similar recoveries and experiences. The horses are absolutely miraculous in helping to create metaphors for these clients, in that horses feel the same discomfort around strangers, and the trust takes time to develop. The patience and calm needed by the Veteran in order to build a trusting relationship with the horse helps build confidence and a sense of responsibility for the client. The body of knowledge using the therapeutic nature of horses and riding for people with other more obvious physical and mental problems is well documented. CVCU has pioneered and developed an amazingly effective recovery process to treat Veterans with military-related PTSD.
When we get home or back stateside our morals and conscience start creeping back in and we start to doubt some of the things we may have done or some of the things we may have seen or experienced. We may think things like: “Why did I survive and some didn’t?” “I should have taken the hit instead of the other guys.” “If it was possible, I would trade places with them right now and give them a chance to live.” “I should have covered their backs better.” Even to the point of this thought: “I would be better off with them. I should join them.” Contemplating suicide or at least thinking about it-something most of us experiencing PTSD have done-is a very dangerous state of mind to be in.
SELF-MEDICATING WITH ALCOHOL OR DRUGS
Sometimes the PTSD mindset tells us that we need some relief from the constant bombardment of all these different issues and we think the only way to get that relief is to alter our state of mind by consuming alcohol or taking nonprescription drugs. In reality we are compounding the problem by feeding depression with a depressant. When we come back from the high all our issues are a little worse. Over time it pushes us closer and closer to that “choice line”. “Should I check out or keep fighting for a while longer?”
We become strangers to ourselves because in the military we become this new great predator, but in the process we lose our individuality, morals, and conscience. When we return home, we keep waiting and longing for our old self to come back. It is very depressing to not be able to reintegrate into civilian life and it becomes a feeling of total hopelessness. “I’ll never get better.” “I’m useless as I am, something is wrong with me but I can’t put my finger on it.” “Why can’t I be like I used to be?” “Where’s my old self?”
There is fear associated with stepping into the unknown. When we are about to step out into the unknown the anxiety builds to a crescendo. It’s a scary place to enter. The “Road to Recovery” that we face in treatment for PTSD is also the unknown and anxiety and fear come into play here also. Even though the PTSD mental state is miserable for us, we at least know what to expect. So the “Road to Recovery” makes us just as anxious and fearful as the traumatic incidents do. To do either one we must force ourselves to enter the unknown.
ANGER AND RAGE
In order to use the skills and techniques we’ve learned that made us this great predator, we must become angry and full of rage to pump the adrenaline into our bodies, which makes us seem invincible. This is part of what makes us a great warrior, the “adrenaline high”. After many of these “adrenaline highs” it becomes part of our defenses and almost addictive. It also becomes another survival technique. It seems like we can call up the adrenaline by becoming angry and full of rage. I believe, in civilian life, we still crave that adrenaline and now we subconsciously use anger and rage to defend ourselves from a threat whether it is real or perceived.
Veterans suffering with PTSD do not realize how they come across to other people. We say and do things that others consider “out of the norm” and because of that way of thinking-due to lack of education about PTSD- our human herd slowly starts to leave us. They’d rather not be around us. The size of our human herd slowly dwindles as time goes on and we really don’t understand why. This becomes a double edged sword because we would rather isolate ourselves instead of trying to figure out why our relationships are falling apart.
Having learned to be hyper-vigilant in the military, as a survival technique, we carry that with us when we come home. Remember, in the military we depended totally on our comrades to cover our backs, and now our comrades are not there. There is nobody to cover our backs except ourselves. Any sudden noise or quick movement or anything unexpected, and our subconscious mind goes into survival mode and tells us to react immediately by taking cover, and/or bringing all the defensive techniques that we’ve learned, and far too often telling us to go on the offense in order to eliminate the threat – whether that threat is real or perceived, the reaction is the same.
BUNKERING UP (ISOLATION)
“Bunkering up” is different than needing some time for oneself. Everyone needs some time to themselves, but there is a time frame as to when they are going to reintegrate into society or their human herd. When someone “bunkers up”, they have no intention of coming out of the bunker or safe place. This isolation can be deadly because there is nothing else to think about except the traumas. It is the most devastating thing done by veterans with PTSD. We are herd animals too and always do better when we are in the herd.
We have a feeling of abandonment when we come home and lose our comrades, the only people we trust. We feel all alone and forced to fend for ourselves but we don’t know how because we’ve always depended on the unit for everything. The feeling of abandonment gets worse as we try to get help and understanding and there doesn’t seem to be any movement down the “road to recovery”. As we begin to lose our human herd, that feeling multiplies. It’s a downward spiral. I have always believed that you are either moving forward or you are moving backward. There is no such thing as staying the same. So this “road to recovery” takes continued effort on the part of the veteran.
VERY LOW SELF-ESTEEM
We have become this great warrior while in the military. The trauma that we experienced has changed us forever. You can ring a bell but you can’t un-ring it. So when we come back, we don’t know who we are. This, along with other dilemmas, leads to a huge drop in self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. The only way to begin to gain our self-esteem back is to come to the conclusion that our old self will never entirely come back, but the good news is we can build a new person that can be even better than the individual we left behind, with a lot of work and effort. Regaining hope for the future and finding our purpose, the reason we survived that trauma, is another cornerstone in the process of recovery.
LOSS OF CONCENTRATION
Veterans suffering from the effects of trauma have a difficult time concentrating on any one thing for a prolonged period of time. Our mind seems to wander and we get lost in the task at hand. We certainly don’t multi-task very well at all, and completing a task is very difficult. Frustration sets in and without recognition can turn to depression. We must learn to recognize when these issues rear their heads and have the tools at hand to keep them under control. If we can’t do that then the issues control us and our lives.
The total population of veterans experiencing PTSD or some form of military-related mental health problems is currently estimated to be over a million. With adequate media exposure and references from the Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, Reserve and National Guard soldiers, there are extremely large numbers of clients who could participate and benefit in CVCU’s outpatient program.
Through on-going sessions CVCU is gaining the research data to establish itself as an accepted and beneficial approach to treating PTSD issues for soldiers and Veterans.
Return on Investment
The Veterans Administration, Department of Defense and the taxpayers of the United States can expect the following by funding the CVCU program:
- Dramatic drop in suicide rate of veterans
- Less domestic violence and child abuse
- Less self-medicating (alcohol and drug abuse which leads to crime)
- Many clients will re-enter the work force, thereby paying taxes
- Veterans will be better equipped to meld back into society and contribute to their communities
- Less divorce, happier and healthier relationships
- Less frequent visits to VA and Vet Center Mental Health Departments thereby reducing the waiting list and overwhelming pressure on these Government Facilities
- To have a proven modality and methodology that significantly advances the recovery process and ceiling
- See new and hidden talents blossom into volunteerism and helping others
- That veterans, who want to, will get better in this unique program (a huge increase in quality of life for our veterans and their families)
These are just some of the benefits to be expected from the CVCU program. The ripple effects of this program will save the US Government and taxpayers millions of dollars.