Training Tip: PTSD in Horses

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I am excited to guide my blog into a direction that will encourage and allow more interaction from the readers.  In addition to articles I will now include monthly training tips including horse keeping, handling or perhaps tips on tack!  Basically, anything that applies to horses of all breeds and styles of riding or care can be a subject of discussion.  I welcome feedback from you and look forward to hearing your experiences, perspectives and questions.  We can all learn from each other.

I am asking that comments be polite and respectful of others.  This blog is for those who want to learn and develop their skills, negative energy is not conducive to growth.  So, here we go!

Post-traumatic Stress in Horses

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Post-traumatic stress is very real in horses.  It can start during the early and unnatural weaning of the foal.  In nature horses will generally keep their foal by their side until they are ready to foal again.  Then they gently push them away. Most breeders want to breed back their mares so they are in a hurry to wean the foal. This is usually done at 3 months. If you’ve ever been witness to this process it’s heartbreaking to hear the calls of both mare and foal crying out for the other. This is so unnatural and stressful for both mare and foal that it can create PTSD.

The stress of weaning is just the beginning.  If the colt/filly is fortunate enough to have other youngsters around they can continue a somewhat comfortable life until either they are sold and taken away from their home completely.  Just think about this.  If this were a human child removed from their parents the ultimate trauma can last a lifetime.  The horse is removed from it’s herd mates, put into a trailer, which in itself is enough to cause ulcers in any horse, then forced into a new environment with new people, and training begins.  Training, no matter what approach you use is not natural.  So, even a kind approach can cause stress on a horse. Life continues with mostly completely unnatural happenings for a horse. We often put them in a stall which clearly is the opposite of a grazing animal.  We dictate their feed, their companions,  their work.   They are ridden in many different ways with many different jobs.   If handled with love, care and kindness most horses adjust surprising well.  However, there are a vast number of horses that have lived through horror, who have been hurt in so many ways, sometimes unintentional, many intentional.   These horses are often victims of PTSD.

PTSD is a real and horrible disorder.  I know because I suffer from it.  I struggled through much of my life to cope with the effects of trauma and although I am fortunate to have learned not to allow it to take away the good in my life I still suffer many effects over 50 years later.  I suffer from anxiety when the darkness of night comes, I am uncomfortable in the house without music or television on, I am an introvert, (although with animals I am at complete peace),  I have low self-esteem,  and I have a foreboding of doom on dreary days and if you come up behind me quietly I will jump 3 feet in the air!

Horses with PTSD show it in many ways.  Some are extremely jumpy, will shy at the drop of a pin and tend to be the horse that explodes easily.  Some are shy and keep away from people if possible.  Some are indifferent.  They almost seem like they are robotic.  It’s their way of handling situations they just “disassociate” and go elsewhere in their brain.  Then there is the aggressive horse who is willing to fight.  Flight didn’t work for this horse so he learned to fight.  These horses will hurt you if you push the wrong button.  Whatever type of response the PTSD victim has it most likely was caused by humans.  So, instead of discarding a horse with problems wouldn’t it make sense to help these horses back to normality?  I think so.  I was discarded, but, my brain allowed me to look for healing and a way to enjoy life.   They can’t do it on their own, they are controlled by  us.

Recently, I was told about a horse that someone shot because he killed a man.  This man took this young horse on knowing he had aggression problems and was warned.  He made a mistake by putting the horse in a position where the horse felt trapped and had to defend himself.  He attacked, the man died.  The horse was shot.  The horror of it all is sickening to think about, but, it didn’t have to happen.  You don’t take on a horse that hates humans without a thorough knowledge and understanding of how to safely work with him.  The horse didn’t have to die either.  Someone made that horse aggressive, and with a skilled knowledgeable trainer perhaps he could have been rehabilitated.

Just like humans there can be a horse with a chemical imbalance unrelated to life experience and that horse can have unpredictable behavior.  Those horses may not be able to function in the realm of what humans want with their horses.  Perhaps those horses could live in a herd of a retirement horses.  But, I believe this is rare and the majority of horses with PTSD are created by man.

I’ve had my fair share of meeting troubled horses.  There is a story of a horse named Lily on this blog.

Lily and Amy

Once you read Lily’s story you will understand why she is so traumatized.  Amy, shown in the photo with Lily, and her husband, Brian, will not give up on Lily.  I will be writing soon on an update of Lily’s progress. I can tell you that through Lily I learned a clear lesson.  That lesson is LISTEN TO THE HORSE!  She has taught me that my agenda does not count.  She cannot help her absolute unpredictable explosions, but, often there is a look, a body posture, a twitch or warning.   Instead of saying ‘you’re alright, Lily and continuing I realize we have to pause.  We have wait for Lily to tell us she is ok with what we are asking before we continue on with our task.  

If you have a troubled horse you will benefit from first learning about body language – both the horse and your own.  What are you telling the horse with the way you stand, the way you move, etc?  What is the horse telling you?  Do you know the different aspects of a horses body language?  Do you understand what the horses’ eye is expressing?  These are the most important of all basics to working with any horse.  Spending leisurely time in the pasture with him, studying his behavior before you attempt training will help you tremendously.  From there retracing the foundation work and finding out what troubles the horse is a step towards rehabilitation.  When you hit a trigger instead of pushing through it, take time, back off a bit.  Allow the horse to return to a comfortable posture and start again.  Take away the horses need to use flight or fight.  One step at a time may take a bit longer but in the end you have a created a bond with a horse who will both trust you and follow you, not simply obey.

4 Comments on “Training Tip: PTSD in Horses

  1. This is a wonderful post. My daughter and I just attended a Frederic Pignon clinic and his ability to help troubled horse is beyond any I have ever seen. From horses who have been “Parellied” to death to ones willing but “with deep sadness”. Many of us were in tears as we saw the transformation when the horse was allowed to express their thoughts and feelings. Stay on this path Sandy. We all need to hear it. I for one, am going to spend a lot of time with my horse and his herd. Thanks.

    • Thank you so much, Janet. I appreciate your feedback. I have watched video’s of Frederic. What I see from him is such a clear understanding of the horses’ needs. It is difficult at times not to humanize when we are with the horses. I feel the horse did not ask to be with us, we chose the horse, so in the very least we owe it to the horse to learn their language, behavior and instincts. If we do that it becomes clear what the horse is needing in order to happily partner with us. I am working on next Chapter of “Lily”. Watching her transformation has been a gift. Once we listen, truly listen to the horse it’s amazing what can happen!

      • Hi Sandi,

        5 months ago my wife and I rescued a little paint mare from a kill pen. When I went to pick her up, after using a chute to halter her, we walked her to the trailer. The distance from the chute to the trailer was about 80 yds. This little horse side passed the whole way so she could stay squared up to us.
        In the last five months she has been to two world class trainers. Both of whom are avid natural horsemanship advocates. Both have been working with horses for a combined 80+ years. Both have said that they have never seen a horse like Shoni.
        Many have said “return her to where you got her from.” This little mare has captured both our hearts and our determination to help her. One of the trainers said that if we can help this little horse, she will teach us everything we will need to know about working with any other horse.
        My wife and I are on a new path to understanding the horse. One that is slow, unorthodox and demands patience and constant learning. We are committed to helping Shoni.
        I am grateful to have come across your blog. We will both subscribe to it,

        Thank you,
        Rob Cook

      • Hi Rob,

        Thank you both for rescuing Shoni. I believe horses/animals come to us for a reason. Shoni needed you. As much as you give to her she will give back to you. What you will learn from this mare will be a precious gift. After 50 years of training I look at Lily as a gift as well. She teaches me so much about myself. The one thing that stands out which I’d like to pass on to you is to LISTEN to her. I have learned not to plan our training sessions but instead to allow her to guide us. PTSD hovers always. I have learned training experience and technique are 2nd to listening to the horse.

        One must always be present when working with a PTSD horse. 100% of your attention should be on her and her body language. Lily has tremendous expression in her eyes. Once I learned to pay close attention to her eye and to wait for her to return to the present situation instead of trying to convince her to return training became easier. Stopping when she “goes elsewhere” instead of trying to work her through has been a lesson learned.

        I would not recommend sending her out to a trainer. Unfortunately, most trainers have multiple horses they must attend to daily. Horses like Shoni need a lot of time to move at their own pace. One must consider their history. (which may or may not be known to you). As a person with PTSD I know that flashbacks are triggered easily and rear their ugly head causing responses of self protection. In horses this can be a violent reaction which can be dangerous. It can also show in a “frozen” stance. It is never meant to harm us only to protect themselves. Fortunately for Lily the owners have no agenda. They simply love Lily for Lily and are willing to go at her pace. Lily shows her trust in them and she willingly follows their lead now, however, (and this is a big HOWEVER) we know that any thing can trigger her past and must be ready and aware at all times. Hours, days, months, years have been spent taking her for walks on the trails, doing ground work and just being with her. She enjoys walking along the trails with another horse as well. The Morrises enjoy their time with her regardless of what form that takes. Brian has a very laid back attitude and tends to just go with the flow of Lily so it is going well.

        When you make a mistake with a PTSD horse it will set you back – even months. Take Shoni as a gift, give her what she needs. Keep her with you and I trust she will give you 100% back. To see a traumatized horse become a happy horse is the most rewarding experience. I look forward to hearing updates on your progress with Shoni. If I can be of any help please do not hesitate to contact me.

        P.S. The trainer that told you to send her back is a person lacking in either knowledge or heart. National titles do not always mean the person is the type of trainer you need.

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