WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Earle Mack has had a lifelong affair with horses.
As a rider.
As an owner.
As an investor.
And now the Palm Beach resident, businessman and noted philanthropist — who was the U.S. ambassador to Finland from 2004 to 2005 — believes horses’ greatest contribution to modern society can be as healers.
Specifically, for military veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m a veteran but I never had to serve in combat,” says Mack, 79. “We know that around 20 veterans a day commit suicide. And around one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have PTSD. We have to do more for these men and women.”
Man O’ War Project
In 2015, he approached researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. His idea: Do a long-term clinical study that would measure the efficacy of equine therapy on military vets suffering from PTSD, and then create a standardized equine therapy protocol.
“There’s plenty of anecdotal information about how effective horse therapy is,” explains Mack. “But to help the most veterans possible, we needed to take a scientific approach.”
Thus was born the Man O’ War Project.
Mack’s Earle I. Mack Foundation provided the initial funding — $1.2 million — and will fund the study until it concludes later this year.
Yuval Neria, co-director of the study and director of Columbia’s PTSD program, was immediately interested when Mack approached the school with his idea.
“Like Ambassador Mack, I’m a veteran too — of the Israeli Army — and feel fortunate that I’ve never suffered the disabling effects of PTSD,” he says.
PTSD sufferers tend to have flashbacks, feel jittery, become uncommunicative, isolate themselves and often experience conditions that co-occur, such as depression and anxiety.
According to Neria, only around half of military PTSD sufferers are helped by treatments, which include cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and prescription medications.
“Most veterans prefer to avoid pharmaceutical treatments,” he says. “And unfortunately, many also feel the societal stigma of admitting to a mental health condition. That’s why it’s vital we develop alternative integrative treatment models.”
Complicating factors for many vets of Afghanistan and Iraq, says Neria, “are the high numbers of traumatic brain injuries they’re suffering, which are being caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devices).”
But whether a vet with PTSD has experienced a brain injury or not, he says “they still need to ‘rewire’ their brain.”
Neria views horses as the ideal companion to interact with military PTSD sufferers.
“Horses and vets have similar life trajectories,” he explains. “The early intensity. Then often being neglected. And finally, the need to find a second career.”
What’s more, Neria notes, is that both horses and military PTSD suffers tend to be “hypervigilant and overaroused. That they can both potentially benefit from their psychophysiological connection is wonderful to observe.”
Mack adds, “When you make a horse your friend, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Here’s how the eight-week program works:
Participants spend two hours once a week in nonriding interactions with specially trained horses at Bergen Equestrian Center in New Jersey.
The interactions are supervised by mental health therapists and equestrian experts.
Using MRIs of the brain, questionnaires, feedback from participants and others tools, researchers are accumulating objective data on the efficacy of the treatment.
More than 40 vets with PTSD have participated so far, and Neria reports that only a couple dropped out before completing the eight weeks. “All the participants with whom I’ve spoken tell me they love coming to the barn.”
And even better, preliminary results have been encouraging, with participants showing what he deems “substantial improvement.”
Neria expects to conclude the study later this year.
To find out more about Columbia University’s Man O’ War Project or make a donation, visit mowproject.org.