A man in a riding helmet stands smiling beside a horse.

Natural Connection

Veterans find relief from post-traumatic stress through working with horses

As a military veteran, I have been going to the VA hospital since 2013 for major depression, severe anxiety, and ADHD. When the pandemic caused me to regress, my therapist didn’t know what else to do and suggested I seek help from other resources. So when I was assigned a story on equine therapy for military veterans, I thought it must be a sign.

Horse expert Monty Roberts runs an equine-therapy program to treat post-traumatic stress in veterans and first responders at his ranch in Solvang, California. Because horses flee when they’re frightened, people must learn to be calm and steady around them, which can help treat post-traumatic stress and anxiety. Early scientific studies have shown equine therapy to be an effective treatment for veterans, and the popularity of programs like Roberts’s is growing.

Rashun Drayton served in the Marines from 1995 to 1999 and has been a police officer since 2010. He had long looked for ways to process trauma from his work but had never heard of equine therapy until a coworker mentioned it last year. His wife tried it out first, then convinced Drayton to go, which staff at Roberts’s ranch say is a common pattern.

The couple attended the program in December 2020, and Drayton has returned two more times since. I spoke with him about his experience in the workshop and how it changed his life. As a result of our conversation, I’ve decided to seek out an established equine-therapy program in my home state of Texas, in search of the peace that Drayton has found.

Top 5 U.S. states that searched equine therapy in 2021

1. Montana 2. Utah 3. Arizona 4. Kansas 5. Washington
What made you decide to try equine therapy?

I figured it couldn’t hurt to try something different, as what I was doing up to that point wasn’t working. Living in a state of hypervigilance—it’s exhausting. So after forty, fifty hours of working during the week, I would find that I didn’t want to do anything but lay on the couch and not leave the house, because when you leave the house, you’ve got to be watching everything, and I would sometimes get frustrated.

I’d lash out at my daughters for things that kids do, or loud noises. I would just kind of be overstimulated. So I definitely felt as if I wasn’t presenting my best self to my family.

What is it about horses, do you think, that helped with your healing?

For me, I think the horse is a kind of a reflection of you. Going into this situation, I knew nothing about horses, and I didn’t know they were flight animals. So in order to have a good interaction with a horse and be able to interact and connect with them, you have to kind of check in with yourself and make sure you’re presenting something that’s not threatening and something that they want to be around. And the only way to do that is to concentrate on your breathing and make sure that you’re not presenting anything that will make them want to choose flight over spending time with you.

U.S. search for how to improve mental health hit an all-time high in 2021.

I was super intimidated by the horses, and I had a hard time even standing next to them because they’re so big and imposing. But once you learn they’re flight animals and are never going to attack or want to hurt you, then it made that a little bit easier. It made it like, “OK, if they’re not going to actually hurt me, then let me get in here and do what I need to do.”

This time a year ago, this wasn’t even on my radar. And now here we are a year later, and I’ve been through three clinics and am probably going to do more. Now we own two horses, and we spend all of our time up there. It’s changed my life in regards to my interactions with my wife and my daughters, and it’s just been pretty amazing.

That sounds very peaceful.

If I’m not having the greatest day, I can go up there and spend time with the horse. And when you are with the horses, you’re not thinking about everything else in the world. You’re working with the horse, and you have to be there in the moment so that you get something out of it. Otherwise, horses won’t want to participate, and they aren’t going to be anywhere near you, and it kind of defeats the purpose of being up there. So it is a good place to be for me, just on any given day, because it does bring a level of peace that sometimes can be hard to find.

A man in a cowboy hat is in the ring with a running white horse.
A horse demonstrates its power before it is introduced to people.
Three people stand near the head of a horse standing still.
Photographs by Dan Quinajon
A group of participants practice diaphragmatic breathing with a horse.
A man in a cowboy hat talks to a small group of people.
Photograph by Dan Quinajon
Roberts with a group of veterans during a Horse Sense and Healing weekend.

Monty Roberts, a world-renowned expert in equine behavior and a bestselling author, began offering free three-day Horse Sense and Healing workshops for veterans and first responders in 2010. The program was developed in collaboration with doctors and other experts, and each workshop is overseen by a clinical psychologist. In 2020, results from four years of the program showed significant improvements in participants’ PTSD symptoms, which Roberts likes to call PTSI, the “I” for injury, because an injury is something that heals.

To find local equine-assisted therapy programs, search “equine-assisted therapy near me,” and be sure to select a program developed and overseen by clinical experts. Veterans and first responders can apply for a future workshop at Monty Roberts’s ranch. Visit montyroberts.com/non-profit/horse-sense-and-healing/.

By Sara Samora


Sara Samora is a Marine veteran, a reporter at the Houston Business Journal, and a contributor for Task & Purpose. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.

Adrian L. Burrell


Adrian L. Burrell is a United States Marine Corps veteran and a third-generation Oakland artist who uses photography, film, and site-specific installation to examine issues of race, class, and intergenerational dynamics. He has lived and worked on four continents and has exhibited work in spaces as varied as the Pingyao International Photography Festival in China, Photoville in New York City, Pop-Up Magazine, and most recently, SFMOMA.

Dan Quinajon


Dan Quinajon is a Navy veteran, equestrian, and photographer. He is currently assigned as a photo and video editor for the United States Space Force (USSF) at Vandenberg Space Launch Delta in California.