Cause and Effect
Veterans get peace of mind with equine therapy
A training ring at The Equus Effect, which David Sonatore and Jane Strong founded, using the basic principles of natural horsemanship to help veterans recover from the psychological wounds of war.
Photos courtesy of The Equus Effect
There are some people who have a defining moment in life. New York and Connecticut equine therapist David Sonatore would say he is one of them. In the late 1990s, feeling disillusioned by the commercialization of the entertainment industry, and with his role as a professional film editor, Sonatore took a break from the hubbub of New York City life to spend some time on a lake in Montana. Coincidentally, and serendipitously, a horse farm was nearby.
A longtime horse lover, Sonatore made daily visits to the property, and it was through his quiet observances of the resident manager training young horses that he would find his new calling. Taken by the sight of a woman, alone in a pen with a horse, using only her body language to communicate, he developed an appreciation for the beauty and silent conversation that can occur between humans and equines. He also saw the healing powers that the inherent traits and characteristics of horses can bring to individuals, and knew that the trajectory of his life going forward would never be the same.
Upon his return to New York, Sonatore lost no time in pursuing his new passion. Over the next nine years he obtained the several degrees required to work as a psychotherapist and equine therapist, and successfully melded the practices of natural horsemanship with mental health. Today, Sonatore spends his time between his private practices in Stamford, Wilton, and New York City, but perhaps most enthusiastically on a horse farm in Sharon.
In 2009, along with fellow equine therapist and coach Jane Strong, Sonatore founded The Equus Effect. In this quiet, rural setting on the grounds of their farm the couple tries to help those who have experienced trauma find a place of peace, calm, and trust through their interaction with horses. Sonatore and Strong work with a variety of individuals, but The Equus Effect was designed specifically with veterans in mind. The alarming rate of suicide among this population (the Department of Veterans Affairs’ most recent findings state that 20 veterans take their life each day) was their call to action. They offer customized programs for each veteran, free of charge. The organization is supported solely through donations.
The Equus Effect uses the basic principles of natural horsemanship, often referred to as horse whispering, to help veterans recover from the psychological wounds of war and to acclimate back into civilian life in a way that feels safe and supportive. They keep it simple. “It’s all about being around the horses, and there are no riding skills involved. We spend a lot of time petting, grooming, walking, and working with the horses through obstacle courses—and building trust,” says Sonatore. A strong emphasis is placed on teaching veterans how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. He and Strong believe that’s the key to keep veterans from feeling the disconnection and isolation that leads to so many suicides.
The five-week program consists of participating one day a week for four hours. During this time, Sonatore works with clients and horses, employing four basic principles: resonance, connection, collaboration, and regulation. “It’s about nervous-system regulation. A lot has to do with breathing. We try to teach people how to stop reacting,” says Sonatore. “It’s all about being around the horses, and there are no riding skills involved.”
He notes that veterans who have gone through their program consistently report powerful and long-lasting results such as better sleep and self-regulation; decreased anger, anxiety and depression, emotional resiliency, healthy boundary setting, and hope for the future.
Ask Sonatore how he feels on any given day and he replies, “I wake up inspired, I come home humbled. It’s rewarding when a veteran tells you that this is the transition from war to peace they never got.”
When asked about the impact on the family, it’s hard not to feel the emotional tug so obviously felt by Sonatore. “When a vet looks at you and says this program has reconnected them to their humanity, and a spouse thanks you for bringing their loved one back, you can’t help but quote Winston Churchill, who said that there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”