Dealing With Trauma

“I finally summarized the most amazing lecture I’ve been to in a while… This was a lecture from Dr. Frank McMillan focused on Post Traumatic Stress in animals. Let’s just say we discussed this for over 2 hours and I left absolutely buzzing with thoughts, ideas and questions. This is a summary of just the basic overview of trauma, the causes, and ways to help – I tried to angle it particularly to horses, but of course most of it overlaps species.

One aspect to keep in mind when discussing emotions and how they relate to horses is that sometimes emotions don’t work according to plan. Whenever one emotion reaches an extreme we call it “over threshold”, the horse becomes reactive with emotional displays, no longer in a thinking or learning mind. We see this most often with the FEAR and RAGE systems, but it can really happen in any direction. FEAR responses are important to survival and learning from past circumstances prevents major issues in the future – this is healthy and appropriate.

This being said, there are times these experiences don’t leave the system entirely. Whether it was one awful scenario, a few bad situations, or a prolonged and unavoidable difficulty they can all leave lasting damage. We call this emotional trauma “pathological” when the body/mind doesn’t return to normal (homeostasis) after the event is over causing the FEAR system to remain active even in when the trauma is over. If you remember how stimulus stacking works, you’ll recognize how this can be dangerous. While a survivor of trauma may be able to function and appear normal, they may learn to cope with the level of FEAR hormones their body is continually pumping out – but this will remain a constant piece of a stimulus stack. Resulting in a much quicker reaction to other stimuli. Those with Trauma can seem to explode over “nothing” or seem to “make things up to get upset over”. Triggers related to the trauma can be as subtle as a smell or a flashback. Triggers may not even be related to past trauma.

Unfortunately we can’t talk to our animals to determine their level of trauma – whether or not they have nightmares or flashbacks. We also don’t always have complete histories on our animals, so it can be hard to differentiate trauma from a lack of socialization. So to measure trauma related to these incidents we need to rely on the tangible behavioral responses. We consider this pathological trauma in animals when the individual begins reacting to harmless stimuli and when the fear responses interfere with normal behavior. We can measure their level of avoidance – observing what triggers reactions and what degree of generalization the avoidance has reached. We can measure their arousal and reactivity levels, an individual with PTS will have extremely exaggerated startle response and hyper-vigilance. We can also measure changes in their disposition, mood and cognition – but only if we knew them before and after the trauma, which unfortunately rarely happens with animals. They may appear jumpy and irritable, easily triggered. The fear may generalize to such an extreme where the whole world becomes a threat. Some of the most extreme expressions of PTS in animals can include: screaming, self-injurious behavior, stereotyped behaviors, trance-like state, unpredictable aggression, instability, depression, trembling, pacing, withdrawal, clingyness, timidness, avoidance of people or specific stimuli…

Trauma has been grouped into levels to help categorize and understand how to handle/treat the trauma. Level 0 is when there are no long-term consequences. Level 1 is Learned Fear, only affecting life when the stimulus is present or anticipated, totally fine otherwise. Level 2 is when learned fear is generalized to similar stimuli or antecedents, but the learner is still fine most of the time. Level 3 is when the fear has turned severe or phobic, it impairs normal function, reducing pleasurable activities whenever the stimulus is present or anticipated. Level 4 is when the severe fear becomes generalized. This impairs normal function when stimulus is present or not, the fear has been generalized to multiple aspects of life.

In human research it was shown that only about 25% of survivors of trauma resulted in an emotional disorder. We most often think of Post Traumatic Stress as the only emotional disorder as a result of a traumatic event. But trauma can lead to a spectrum of emotional disorders including Post Traumatic Stress, Phobias, Generalized Anxiety and Depression.

What stunned and shocked me most was the list of situations that cause trauma – and just how many of them applied so directly to horses, almost unavoidably so! The causes include abuse, neglect, aversive confinement, multiple re-homing, hoarding, natural disasters, social deprivation, fighting, racing, forced work, service/military duty, laboratory research/testing, physical trauma/injury. Often many of these overlap and go hand-in-hand. Almost all of these are just common, normal keeping of horses! This absolutely shook me to hear. How does any horse come out of life without trauma?!

Ok, so trauma is obviously common in the horse world, frequently overlooked and even justified. Ideally – we who choose to educate ourselves will be working our hardest to not only prevent this, but heal it when and where we can. Most of us don’t have horses from birth (that would be a super lucky horse). Most of us are cleaning up damage other humans (and sometimes ourselves) have caused. But how can we help repair a horse who’s been through trauma and has lasting damage?

One of the biggest things we can provide our horses is a sense of control in their life. Having the perception that we can control, turn off or prevent certain events in our life can reduce the lasting effects of trauma and help individuals be more tolerant to unpleasant situations. This is one of the biggest benefits of Positive Reinforcement training, when used ethically. With R+ horses can walk away, say no to training or even initiate the next repetition. Allowing our horses to have more choice and control in their training and ultimately their lives. A horse with a strong sense of control and choice will be more resilient to aversive situations (like vet emergencies) than a horse who is already feeling a lack of control.

Social companionship is the next best thing for preventing and reducing the effects of trauma. Social support has a buffering effect shown in every social species. It’s important to remember that humans are rarely enough social support for a social species like horses – having other, healthy horses can substantially speed their recovery and buffer the effects of future trauma.

Our goal should be to restore and maintain our horse’s sense of security and trust in humans, other animals and the world in general. While we would love if we could write up a rehab program or provide a medicine to fix this problem, healing from trauma can be a slow process with frequent steps back. Realistically our goal with any trauma survivor is to help them be able to function in regular life with the capacity to enjoy life and engage in positive social relationships. Letting horses enjoy play, positive training, and a healthy social world. Luckily recent studies in dogs with PTS have shown that most are able to nearly or completely re-adapt to regular life.”

Leave a Reply