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DENVER — Law enforcement experts say post traumatic stress disorder is a silent killer of first responders.

Frank Gale, with Colorado’s Fraternal Order of Police, calls it “the most significant problem facing first responders in Colorado.”

Statistics show more officers are killing themselves than are getting killed in the line of duty. According to Badge of Honor, there are 125 to 150 police suicides each year, three times the number of officers killed by felons.

“The old adage ‘put your big boy pants on and go back to work’ is just stupid,” said Bruce, an undercover officer for the Longmont Police Department. “It’s antiquated and stupid, it’s not possible. Anyone who says it is has been lying to themselves for years. Nobody teaches us how to cope with that trauma. They teach us how to shoot, they teach us how to defend ourselves, they teach us how to write reports, they teach us what the law is. But no one is giving us coping skills to deal with it when we go.”

But now, Bruce and a team of equine specialists are trying to change that.

They want police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and any other first responders to know there is a new type of therapy available in Colorado. And it uses horses, which might be more appealing to this group that is used to hiding their emotions.

“John Wayne hung out with horses. That’s cool. That’s not showing any sign of weakness,” Bruce said.

Bruce experienced the horse effect first hand.

The ‘horse effect’

A few years ago, he was forced to make a life-or-death decision.

“The situation turned out use less than deadly force, but traumatic for everyone involved,” he said.

He went home that night and spent some time with his horse.

“The calming effect was tremendous. My heart rate came down, it made me feel safe. Made me feel like a human being again. It’s hard to feel like a human after some of the days that we have,” he said.

Equine therapy, using the EGALA model, has helped veterans for years. Brad Gallup served in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps, and deployed to several war zones. He saw several close friends killed in action.

“Somehow, I found myself in a bedroom. My wife and daughter were gone. I found myself alone with my shotgun and figured that was the only way with all the pain I had to get out of it,” he said.

Gallup said he was afraid to ask for mental health help because he would lose his security clearance. That’s when he found equine therapy. It’s a confidential treatment option.

“The horse was standing and I laid across there and it was like a huge wave of grief and loss came over and the horse did not move. … He just stood there while I grieved for like 20 minutes, just immobile,” Gallup said.

Gallup said if it worked for him, he knows it could work for first responders who see horrific things every day. That is why the Colorado FOP and Equine Response are introducing equine therapy to first responders in Colorado.

“As much as the national conversation is slow to move forward on the need for trauma therapy for veterans, it’s light years behind for first responders,” said Lane Volpe, program developer for Equine Response.

“The entire field is currently evolving and we’re excited to be at the forefront and cutting edge of leading the field of equine therapy.”

Their first six-week session started last week.

Relationship with horses

“It’s not about horsemanship skills, not about taking care of horses, groom horses, it’s really about the relationship with horses,” therapist Michelle Kay said. “The relationship you get being around a horse is unlike anything else. You’ve got a 1,200-pound animal right in front of you giving you automatic feedback. They can get coping skills, they can get relationship skills. Any stress or trauma a client is facing, they can work it out with the horses and extrapolate that into their human relationships and human lives.”

They are trying to spread the word that this program is available, and they hope it saves lives. The Colorado FOP is committed to making sure all first responders who want to take part can.

For more information and to donate to the fundraising organization, visit