by Cynthia Hazen
In learning of the Saratoga War Horse, a program created for veterans with PTSD, I am struck with how immediate and lasting a highly charged positive emotional experience can be in changing our life direction. When we are joyful or exuberant or “in” love, thoughts and experiences are wonderful and everything seems to be going our way. This is what it feels like to thrive. This process can work in the opposite direction as well leading us to perceive that everything is working against us. Momentum works to sustain or escalate the thinking and emotional path we are on. Too often we are tempted to explain what we are experiencing when we are not thriving and to attempt to determine the cause, which will then escalate the negative emotions. The Saratoga War Horse experience offers veterans an opportunity to break up the vicious cycle of reverting to thinking about trauma experiences and feeling traumatized and to replace it with revisiting the positive experience of profound love in connecting to a horse who was traumatized like them.
The Saratoga War Horse program was started in Saratoga Springs, NY. It offers interactive experience between off-the-track thoroughbreds and veterans creating a connection utilizing the silent language of the horse. A mutual trust and profound bond is established that goes beyond verbal communication. This is a one-time experience freely available to any veteran who chooses to have it. It is available either in Saratoga Springs or Aiken, SC where we now live. Veterans who have had the experience report it to be both profound and life altering. In hearing the descriptions of how they have changed their lives it is evident that they have been able to change their emotional set point from one of despair to hope. This program was started to combat the extremely high suicide rate in American veterans and so far so good.
After learning about the program I was reminded of an experience I had years ago when I was walking my dog in the wooded yard behind my house while on a lunch break from work. I came upon two fawns who were learning to walk. It was incredible in that I was within a few feet of them, they were so young they hadn’t learned to be afraid, for some reason the dog was distracted elsewhere and didn’t pursue them and their mother was not visible. The few moments involved in that encounter were profound and forever since I can go back to that picture in my mind and feel the awe, the joy, of the encounter.
Most of us have had experiences in our lives where we felt deeply connected or joyful. Sometimes we perceive these as spiritual or religious experiences. Sometimes we perceive these as the experience of being in love. Regardless, the feelings involved are positive and often quite intense. We may use these experiences to set or reset our emotional set point and build momentum in which we perceive that we are loved, that we are connected, that things do go our way. Practicing this perspective gives us the ability to thrive. When we think and feel things are going our way they do as thoughts and feelings and experiences interact such that one thing leads to another in the direction we most deeply expect.