York Regional Police embracing equine assisted therapy for mental health

York Regional Police embracing equine assisted therapy for mental health

This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of King Country Magazine.

A few years ago the Master of Ceremonies at a police appreciation night asked York Regional Police Sergeant Andy Cook, “What’s so special about horses?” Without hesitation, and in his usual calm demeanor, the 48-year-old military veteran returned with: “Nobody ever wanted to pet my cruiser.”

Today’s police officers have more occasion than ever to experience PTSD and a disproportionate level of access to adequate tools with which to address their needs.

He wasn’t trying to be funny but, everybody started laughing anyway, picking up on the pure truth of the sentiment. “People come up. Even those who don’t like the police. They don’t care. They still want to come pet your horse,” he explains.

Andy was born on a British military base in Hong Kong. By the early 70’s he was attending school in Northern Ireland. “I remember we used to take the green school bus to school, with an armed soldier in the back of the bus. I sometimes had to stay home twice a week because of IRA bomb threats.”
Andy immigrated to Canada in 1983, finishing high school in 1987. In 1989, Andy joined the Canadian Armed Forces and became an armoured crewman, riding in a tank as part of the 8th Canadian Hussars, in Germany. “I joined the reserves when I was 17. When I finished high school, I joined the military.”

As soon as he finished training on the East Coast, they sent him to Germany. “I thought it was a good time. I saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were a lot of good experiences, some bad ones.”

His next tour of duty was much different from getting to personally experience the end of the Cold War. In 1994, Andy got deployed to the former Yugoslavia, as part of the Strathcona Battle Group. It was supposed to be a UN Peacekeeping mission, Operation United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). But, “it was not.” The Canadian armed forces were there to bear witness to genocide. “It was very much as Lieutenant-General Roméo Antonius Dallaire describes of his experiences in Rwanda. I have pictures upon pictures that make most people’s stomachs turn inside out. The experience wasn’t very good.”

Our soldiers came back mentally scarred and often self-medicating with alcohol, or worse. “Back then you weren’t allowed to be sick in the army until somebody told you that you were sick. Mental illness was no different. I remember we got off the airplane and we were standing in a big room, in a hall. The base commander stands there and says: ‘Is everybody good? Anybody got any problems? Anything you want to talk about?’ Everybody just looked around and said, ‘No, I’m good.’ So the commander said, ‘Okay, well, you guys take the week off, we’ll see you back to work in a week.’ That was the extent of the soldiers’ debarkation and counselling,” he relates.

Some guys, like Andy, turned to the bottle. Others, like the guy who lived upstairs with his girlfriend, resorted to other measures. “He was a radio technician, and I knew him from Germany. His girlfriend came downstairs, all frantic. She said, ‘Paul’s in the bathtub, he slit his wrists.’ We saved his life. He didn’t cut himself bad enough but, he bled a lot. It was close,” says Andy.

“After I came back from the Balkans, in the early 90’s, there wasn’t any decompression,” he continues, “I still have friends who are in the military or recently retired, killing themselves by their own hand. I had a friend who served for 30 years, took his own life on the 22nd of May.”

Over the past three decades, Andy Cook lost count of how many soldiers have taken their lives. He stopped trying to rationalize it a long time ago. “I was exposed to suicide from an early age in the military. In my first year and a half in Germany, I had one of the guys from my basic training kill his wife and himself. Then, a year later, we had another soldier kill himself.

Visiko Bosnia, 1994 UNPROFOR peacekeeping mission

Saving Paul from his demons was the final straw. By then, Andy had become, as he puts it, “disenfranchised with the military.” He asked to be released. But the military, unwilling to let a good soldier go, transferred Andy to The Strathcona Mounted Troop, an authorized volunteer display unit of the Canadian Armed Forces, reminiscent of Lord Strathcona’s Horse from the 1920’s and 30’s. It was a ceremonial position, pretty much the marketing arm of the Canadian Military.

Starting in 1994, Andy spent the better part of four years travelling across Western Canada, performing in musical rides and parades, mostly in the Grey Cup and Calgary Stampede. There, Andy discovered how easily a horse can bring a man to his knees. “No matter how tough you think you are, it’s still all about respect. You need his permission to get on his back.”

“That experience changed my life. After I came back from the Balkans, I developed a bit of a habit to self-medicate with alcohol. Indirectly, riding a horse helped me end up in a place where I wanted to be. Sir Winston Churchill once said, ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.’ I believe that.”

By 1995, Andy was ready to come home. Aside from his horse, Edmonton had little appeal for him. He applied to join Peel Regional Police but, they felt it was too soon. It had only been six months since his last tour of duty. They encouraged him to give it more time and reapply, so he did. In 1998, Andy returned home to Brampton and suited up as a police officer.

In 2000, Andy decided to transition over to the York Regional Police (YRP), and eight years later he finally got a chance to get back on a horse. The Governor Generals Horse Guard had a mounted aspect to it in Ontario, so he joined them as a civilian rider. “It was nice to get back on a horse,” he admits.

Suddenly, in 2012, Andy got a call he never expected. “I was a bit worried because you don’t usually get called to the deputy chief’s office when you’re a constable.” It turns out that at the recent police appreciation night some money was allocated toward starting a ceremonial police mounted unit. “Make it happen,” said the deputy chief. “By 2014 York Regional Police had a fully functioning ceremonial mounted unit.

2016 Annual YRP Remembrance Day Ceremonies York Regional Police Station, Georgina

Based on the successes and examples of the New York Police Department (NYPD), YRP recognized that police cruisers create a physical barrier and a sense of isolation from residents.

As Andy puts it, “Getting on a horse helps bridge that gap. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what colour, creed, or background you come from, everybody loves horses. Well, not everybody, some people are deathly afraid of them. I mean they’ll stand there, they come close. They may not want to touch them but, they still like the idea of them, and they forget that you’re wearing a uniform or firearms or what your primary purpose in the community is. So if it were me, I’d love to have a full-time unit that, that’s all we do. It is a great public relations tool.”

In 2015, Andy reconnected with Steve Critchley, co-founder of the Can Praxis program, out in Calgary. The two served together in the Balkans. They spoke at length about how Can Praxis uses equine0assisted therapy to help military couples address unresolved conflict. In addition to being a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, Critchley is an international mediator, facilitator, negotiator and trainer. Jim Marland, the other co-founder of Can Praxis, is a registered psychologist, and equine assisted learning facilitator.

All of a sudden, Andy had the missing piece to his puzzle. Based on his experience with both the Peel and York Region police departments Andy knows all too well that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not limited to war veterans. To him, Can Praxis sounded like an exciting opportunity for police officers suffering, or at risk of suffering from PTSD.

“I have some riders who are proficient at their riding but, they have some limitations. The horses can always tell. They say: ‘Oh, the horse is doing this.’ So I get on, and the horse won’t do it. The difference is, the horse picks up on whatever you’re feeling. So if you are confident without being overconfident, it will do what you ask. You can’t be afraid, and you can’t be cocky either. If you’re going to play the wrestling match, you’ll lose. You have to put away the ego and deal with it on a basic level. It’s a 1,500-pound animal. You’re not forcing it to do anything. You have to ask it firmly but, you have to figure how to ask it.”

Like Andy, Steve and Jim know first-hand how PTSD can destroy relationships and is especially prevalent in overly stressed families. Their program was specially developed to teach participants how to manage their conflict effectively, using mediation as the therapeutic tool and the horses as the way to test how well the mediation is going.

Andy found the design of the program especially compelling. It focuses on reintegrating people living with PTSD into the quality of life they volunteered to protect. As Steve explains it, “People suffering from anxiety and depression are not in a positive sphere. Everything is negative. So, the whole thing is we need to get them to the barn, get them to sweep the stalls. You don’t interfere with them; just get them to accomplish something so they can feel good about themselves. When people are smiling and laughing, they aren’t killing themselves.”

“Find something, give them something worthwhile. So at the end of it, they feel like they’ve accomplished something. There are other programs like building houses but, there’s no feedback from that. With a horse, it’s based on trust and respect and nothing else. If you aren’t giving it your all the horse won’t respond,” continues Andy.

Ever since the war in Afghanistan, public awareness has focused on the plight of military veterans and their struggles with mental health. The Canadian Forces have come a long way in acknowledging the need to support our veterans’ and their families’ mental health. But, when it comes to our police forces and their fellow emergency service providers, the subject is still one that is very much shrouded in stigma. At the same time, today’s police officers have more occasion than ever to experience PTSD and an inadequate level access to adequate tools with which to address their needs.

“Everybody thinks policing, and military are very similar. They are not. They do have some similarities but, couldn’t be more on further ends of the spectrum,” says Andy.

“When I left home to join the military, I went through basic training. Continued that for a year and then went to a regiment. After that, I served with those same individuals. We went overseas together, stayed and suffered together. For however many years that is your family. That’s the only family I’ve ever known. So, realistically what happens in the military is you create your own internal support. Those are the guys you rely on when you go out to bars; you drink, you cry on their shoulders, you talk about anything and everything. It’s funny because going on 18 years, and I’m still very close to the guys I served within the military. A lot of them are police officers. A lot of them are firefighters. Occasionally, we all get together, have a few laughs, look at old pictures, giggle, and talk about people we’ve lost along the way. That’s part of our healing process. We’ve learned to do that because we continue with that internal support network.”

In the police force, it is harder to develop that same family-type unit of people experiencing the same things, at the same time. First responders are at a high risk of developing PTSD. Reportedly, nearly half of paramedics are at risk. For police, the numbers range from eleven to twenty percent, depending on the source.

“You go to the police college for ten weeks; then you come back, and you’re on a different platoon. You can spend all day going from call to call and not see a person on your platoon aside from the one or two that go on that call with you. You don’t have that relationship with anybody,” explains Andy. “So, how do you get rid of it? You go home, take out the anger on your children or your spouse or whatever.”

Statistically, divorce rates tend to be higher amongst first responders, offering some insight into the number of people who don’t feel that they have somebody that understands them, that they can talk to. According to Andy, “YRP has a Peer Support Unit, and they are taking steps in the right direction. But, those efforts are in their infancy. We are a long way from having the support systems in place that will extend the average length of service of our members.”

When he first started, “It took me a long time to realize that just because I’m a police officer or a soldier, it doesn’t make me any better or less than anyone else. The first couple of years after the military I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Yeah, we’re the police, yeah, you know what? We’re people just like everybody else, and we feel pain just like everyone else—and sadness.”

Today, confides Andy, “you have young officers still living at home, 21, 22 years-old, going to a domestic where this man and this woman are fighting over their hydro bill. They’ve never paid a hydro bill. So, how are they going to mediate? How are they going to understand? It’s the same with all the lines. I’ve experienced a lot of things. So, I understand life. I can sympathize with what you’re experiencing. I can say ‘yeah, I get it.’”

As unresolved conflict destroys relationships, and is especially common in overly stressed families, Can Praxis trains participants to manage their conflict effectively.
Shown here, the determined Veterans and their spouses working hard to overcome PTSD on Can Praxis Phase I, in Rocky Mountain House, AB.

On top of that, “Everybody is filming everything you do now. There are more complaints against police now than ever before. It adds an enormous amount of pressure on the officer. When you go to deal with a situation, it could be a traumatic situation; it could be you have to use force on someone, it could be a situation where someone is missing body parts, or death. At the top of your head is ‘will there be a complaint or Special Investigations Unit (SIU) investigation?’ So, it does add to the stress.”

In the military, mental health is no longer the elephant in the room. Everybody knows you’re in pain. In the police force, mental illness is not something people want to admit readily. When you break a leg, people say: “Oh, that sucks.” When you admit that job-related stress is affecting you, people label you as crazy.

As Andy suggests, “It’s going to be a long time before people treat an injury to a broken limb and mental illness in the same way. They’re both injuries, just one you can see, and the other you can’t.”

Andy is a strong advocate of helping people learn how to channel their stress. He is as mighty and resilient as they come. But, he also believes people need to feel safe in asking for help when they need it. “It’s not about admitting weakness it’s about returning them to health,” he explains, “when you always put on a brave face, nobody ever asks you how you’re doing.”

His work in promoting the advantages of working with horses is something he does on his own time, though with the endorsement and support of YRP. “I think that you have to show the human side of you, which we’re not robots. Yeah, we wear body armour. That stops the bullet, it doesn’t stop the hurt,” says Andy.

Policing benefits are designed to cover only the successful applicant with a PTSD diagnosis. Currently, spouses are not covered by insurance because they don’t have PTSD even though we know that PTSD has a lasting and significant impact on the entire family, not just the individual. That’s why Can Praxis is a couple’s program.

Steve and Jim attest to a 62% success rate. According to the latest returns provided by Dr. Randy Duncan, a research psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan Sociology Department, “up to 83% of Can Praxis participants gain something useful.”

After speaking with Steve, Andy pitched the horse aspect to the deputy and the YRP peer support team. That led to the 2016 partnership between YRP and the Wounded Warrior program, sponsor of the Can Praxis program.
To date, three couples from YRP attended the program with success. As Andy points out, “It is not about riding horses; it’s about feedback from the horse. Horses are not like dogs. Dogs are loyal to the end. Horses aren’t like that. With horses, everything is built on respect. Unless you earn the respect of that horse, it couldn’t care less about you. You have to work; you have to put all that anger, all that anxiety aside to be able to build the respect with this horse. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work. So a horse is used as a barometer. The rest is all mediation.”

A testimonial on the Can Praxis website reads, “Steve and Jim provided a safe and non-threatening environment in which dialogue, which has never happened but was so desperately needed, did occur. I truly believe your support with this program will save more than just lives; it will save families.”

We are still in the early stages of YRP’s emerging understanding of how to support the mental health of its officers. Still, it is encouraging to see that they recognize the need for focusing on prevention. “The question I ask is why are we waiting for people to be diagnosed with PTSD before we help them? Why don’t we help them before?” says Andy. “It’s a slow process. The York Regional Police is at the front end of spearheading the programs. As an organization we’re still learning,” explains Andy.

Andy had pitched extending the Can Praxis program to officers identified as ‘at risk’ of PTSD. But, even if the YRP peer support team opts to go in a different direction, perhaps something right here in Ontario, it is comforting to know that similar programs are popping up and that increased awareness is leading to meeting a broader spectrum of people in need of attention.

Things are getting better. Andy is amongst many working toward advocating for mental health and PTSD prevention. Current measures such as physically locating Wounded Warrior, YRP’s Peer Support unit and Tema (offering PTSD support to medics and firefighters) in the same building is a significant step toward fostering collaboration and partnerships while maximizing available funding programs.

So far, YRP was the first police service in Ontario to be offered to send officers down to Can Praxis. As such YRP is leading the charge and setting a great example by looking after the people, we rely on to keep our communities safe.

Andy Cook and Hudson
Next year, Wounded Warrior will do a battlefield ride (BBR18) in the Balkans from Sarajevo to the Medak Pocket. “This will be the final chapter in closing those ghosts of the past for me, and the terrible memories that still haunt me,” says Andy. At the time, the battle was considered to be one of the most severe fought by the Canadian Forces since the Korean War.

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