Two summers ago, Quest profiled Ambassador Earle Mack and his innovative Man O’ War Project (MOW). Named after racing’s “mostest horse,” MOW set out to prove that equine therapy would be an effective treatment for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry agreed to undertake a research trial that would put approximately 60 PTSD-suffering veterans through a specially designed program of working and interacting with horses. “Horses by nature are prey animals, so they are hyper-vigilant and reactive to people’s behavior,” says Prudence Fisher, a professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia, who has been directing the study. “The veterans feel the horses are mirroring what they feel,” says Yuval Neria, a medical psychology professor at Columbia.
Post-traumatic stress disorder causes a host of emotional symptoms, including angry outbursts, trouble concentrating, sleeplessness, and suicide. During the course of an eight-week program, veterans and horses learn to trust each other and both benefit. The animals selected include mellow, older horses, including former racehorses, who appreciate having new purposes in their lives.
To Matt Ryba, a Marine Corps veteran who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, the approach makes sense. “A horse is an animal that a lot of soldiers are able to identify with. Like soldiers, they’re attuned to their environment. The way a horse feels when someone new is approaching them is a kind of reflection of similar emotions of wariness and distrust that a veteran would be experiencing. The ability to work through and overcome those feelings represents a huge step forward for veterans returning from war zones.”
The study has now concluded, and the results have been outstanding. There has been a low dropout rate and measurable improvement in almost every area of behavior the study scrutinized. Best of all, MRI scanning has revealed positive brain changes in less than eight weeks, indicating an ability for the veterans joining the program to heal their wounds of war steadily and surely.
Now that the Phase One trial has been successful, Columbia plans to take the program to a national level, which was always the researchers’ fondest hope. To do so, Columbia will enlist funding from the Department of Defense, the Veterans’ Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and private industry.
For longtime horse owner and army veteran Earle Mack, who, with the Jockey Club, was the primary funder of the project’s first phase, the results have been gratifying. Mack is a former chairman of the New York State Racing Commission, a former board member of the New York Racing Association, and a current member of the Jockey Club. He has long been active in Thoroughbred retirement programs, and, in 2017, created the Dinny Phipps Award for contributions to equine health in memory of the late Jockey Club chairman and racing grandee. Ambassador Mack continues to be a staunch advocate of racing’s best traditions, and recently wrote an opinion column in The Hill advocating for passage of the Horseracing Integrity Act, which would create uniform national governance of the sport, ensuring transparency and consistency in the medical treatment and health of racehorses. In short, Earle Mack has been a champion of the turf himself, and his latest success launching the Man O’ War Project figures to be his crowning achievement and an everlasting legacy.