NEW JERSEY (FOX 5 NEWS) - Aroch Bolanos, 31, is a U.S. Army combat veteran who did two tours in Iraq. Yet coming home was the hardest part. Bolanos battled PTSD. He says the traditional therapy treatments felt unnatural. It was the complete opposite of what he was trained to do.
"In the Army we go by many slogans," Bolanos said. "One of them is 'Shoot, move, communicate,' and when you go through that process you see communicate is the last thing we do."
Nearing a mental breakdown, Bolanos found solace in a friend just as wary to trust others as he was. He says equine therapy saved his life.
The program is part of research being conducted by Columbia University. It is the first university-led study looking into horse-assisted therapy to treat veterans with PTSD. It also has licensed clinicians as part of the treatment team.
Social worker Bonnie Malajian says horses differ from the traditional service dog because they're prey, not predators.
"They're very sensitive to everything in their environment -- everything they feel, see, hear and experience," Malajian says. "It's very much like what a veteran would be struggling with. They could be very hyper-vigilant because their whole job in life is to keep themselves safe."
The program meets once a week at the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia, New Jersey. Its lasts a total of eight weeks and teaches things like boundaries and situational awareness with the horses.
"They're just amazing animals and seem to get along well with humans," says Assemblyman Tim Eustace, who is working on a bill to get insurance companies to pay for equine therapy. He says he hopes Columbia's research helps get it passed.
Bolanos has a message to his fellow veterans.
"It's not hopeless -- it's something that you have to work on," Bolanos says. "That's how you're going to get through it."