'Horse whisperer' works to heal veterans with PTSD

Alicia Watkins bonds with a horse on a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. (WJLA photo)

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. (WJLA) – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports up to 20 percent of veterans suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. While many receive medications to fight their symptoms, Monty Roberts’ drug-free solution is about building trust with a horse.

D.C. city girl Alicia Watkins has very limited experience with horses, but in just minutes, a horse is following her every lead. “Horse whisperer” Monty Roberts calls this moment “join-up.”

“It’s that moment when the horse decides to be with you, rather than away from you,” he said.

Roberts grew up with an abusive father who ran a riding school. He says he found his healing by joining-up with horses. Now, Roberts is teaching veterans with PTSD the same method, so they can heal, too.
Roberts says PTSD should be called PTSI, for Posttraumatic Stress Injuries. Injuries, he believes, can be healed by learning to trust again.

“PTSI, not D. There’s no disorder,” he said. “When we make an Army to put ‘em on the battlefield, we wash trust out of ‘em; they can’t trust anything.”

Horses, by nature, are the same.

“They do not trust human beings at all, under any circumstances, unless you earn it,” Roberts said. “We go through a specific set of maneuvers to engender trust.”

Watkins served in Iraq, Afghanistan and was in the Pentagon on 9/11. She says joining-up is better than medicine.

“I experienced IEDs, suicide bombers,” she said. “I went through traumatic brain injury, also, within my military service, I was sexually assaulted.”

Watkins isolated herself and became homeless.

“I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares every night,” she said. “I contemplated suicide.”

In 2011, Watkins spent three days on Roberts’ farm joining-up with horses. She calls the moment the first horse chose to follow and trust her the reason she is still alive.

“It just literally changed who I was in an instant,” she said. “In one moment to wash every horrible memory with one horse following me into a pen and trusting me.”

Watkins says joining-up gave her purpose and leadership, and allowed her to trust again. Now, she is a Harvard student and Miss Massachusetts 2014.

Roberts’ goal is to expand his three-day nonprofit program nationwide, to help as many veterans as possible.

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