Horse Problems: Training The Abused Horse

Equine PTSD. Let go of it.

Approximately 50% or more of the people I meet with a problem horse tell me that the horse is a rescue, was abused, or was PROBABLY abused before they got it.

Horse abuse pulls on anyone’s heart strings.
It comes in the form of neglect and malnutrition or is practiced as unpredictable physical punishment.

Horses are traumatized by painful or threatening behavior that is inconsistent. If his abusive owner punished him, beat him, or threatened him in a way that he could not figure out why or when or how to avoid it, he is left with no defense except aggression toward the abuser, frantic escape, or total submission. His horse instincts are in tact, but the situation is too sporadic to use his senses to avoid the abuse. This produces the untrusting, unpredictable adoptee that we all know about. A horse with PTSD.

But there are other reasons that horses exhibit bad behavior and end up at shelters. At least 50% of the owners who blame abuse for their horse’s behavior are wrong. It’s easier to blame PTSD than own the problem. Bad behavior can be brought on by a horse “too well treated”: A horse whose owner sees the problem growing, doesn’t know what to do about it, and blames some previous but unknown abuse. “What else could it be? I have treated him with kindness. I have given him everything he could wish for.” The owner has given him everything except what a horse needs most: a leader.

He has an owner whose good heart allowed him to become completely overbearing, aggressive, or dangerous because of the owner’s inability to draw a line in the sand.

Training is the key to his mind and his heart.

The most important thing to remember when adopting a rescue is that a horse is a horse is a horse. Whether your horse was starved, beaten or mishandled, he still has the instincts of a horse. He is only comfortable when he can figure out the right behavior and anticipate the comfortable outcome. He must know the rules of the game.

The best way to treat Equine “PTSD” is to let go of it in YOUR OWN mind.

Whether your horse has suffered abuse or not, he should not be treated differently than other horses. In fact, it is counterproductive to approach his training as if he were made of glass. He needs love and kindness, of course. But he also needs rules and predictability.

The ingredients in the Training Sessions that MUST be present are:

1. Authority: Give him a reason to follow you. Be as gentle as possible but as strong as necessary to get an exercise accomplished. Show him (using his natural language) that you ARE the leader, and you will not lead him into danger. See Joining Up – Taking a Leader

Trust is built daily between a horse and his owner. Challenging for Leadership is the issue most often affecting rescued horses, and it is a natural phenomenon for a horse. When he questions your ability to lead, he isn’t a bad or damaged horse, he is a NORMAL horse. Read: Pasture Etiquette. When he bites, kicks, rears, he is telling you that he has figured out how to beat whatever system you have set up to achieve “good” behavior. He doesn’t have to have been traumatized to do that. It comes naturally. If you will not lead, he will. But he will lead like a horse, taking advantage of your weakness to do as he pleases. If he runs away, is scared, timid or unable to be calmed, trust is built by showing him that you are a benevolent leader, but a leader whose requests can be trusted.

2. Consistency: Fear of the un-forseen consequences is the basis for most behavior issues stemming from physical abuse. When a horse is trained by a mean-spirited, un-skilled or ignorant trainer, punishment is rarely meted out in a predictable way. If a horse doesn’t understand the basis for the reward or the punishment, he can hardly be blamed for trying to avoid it by any means possible. He uses the weapons at hand: he bites, kicks, charges, bucks, rears, or runs. See Fight or Flight.

If you are ALWAYS CONSISTENT, he can figure out the rules of the game and play right along with you instead of being frightened about your next move. (PTSD disappears)

Horses are creatures of habit, and strong habits are formed during abuse experiences. He must come out of his “reactive” mind (the one that acts first and thinks later) into his thinking mind (the one that stops and thinks before action). That requires unending consistency and a calm mind-set (read on).

3. Companionship: Time spent rewarding a relaxed state of mind is never wasted. During training sessions, allow the horse to benefit from a job well done (no matter how small ) by standing, resting, relaxing (See Release Training). Don’t stop until he is in the relaxed state, but be sure to stop when he gets there! A previously-abused horse may exhibit more anxiety in the beginning, but you can demonstrate how to relieve that anxiety by rewarding a relaxed state of mind. see: Introducing Maneuvers

End every session on a good note, and allow a few minutes at the end of each session for talking, stroking, grazing or other pleasurable activities.

See Reinforcement Theory and Release Training.

Treating him with “kid Gloves” is not the answer. Handle him with with Strength, Kindness, and Consistency. Change his mind and you will change his life.

It bears repeating, “Training is the key to his mind and his heart.”

Give him a chance to come back to natural good behavior by being consistent and leading him out of the dark.

Under no circumstances should information presented here be construed as veterinary in nature. Always consult your veterinarian if problems persist. Additionally, horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.

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