Overcoming Trauma

So your horse has trauma…

Sometimes we bring our wonderful new horse home, only to discover that their emotional damage runs deeper than we imagined. They don’t always believe us when we say “your life is different now”. We may not always know the cause of their trauma, and to be honest, it’s not always important to know exactly what happened. Many people get hung up on what might have happened in their past to make them feel and behave the way they do. In honesty, it doesn’t matter so much where it came from, just where they are now. Understanding their current triggers and responses (behavioral and emotional) really is the important part. A horse with trauma tends to express this one of two ways, by shutting down or by becoming reactive. But again, the solutions will be similar regardless of which direction they swing. Regardless of how they express their trauma, the problem has the same root – fear, conflict, confusion, or lack of healthy connections.

We have a few points to create – security, connection, control, and clarity.

A sense of security in their home and their resources is vital. When discussing security we are talking about their physical sense of safety, this involves their environment and their resources. This comes down to ensuring their environment is what suits them best. Whether they need the security of protected contact from other horses/humans or space to measure their own comfortable distance. Our sweet rescue, Taina, had no confidence to meet other horses loose in a field, she would hide as far from them as possible. But being able to meet the horses over a fence and through stall doors gave her the confidence to greet them and assure she could escape if needed. We also need to consider access to resources. Feeling secure that their needs will be met is vital to an emotionally balanced horse. This can be difficult with “easy keepers”, but providing slow feed options to ensure they never run out can go a long way to helping a horse feel secure in their resources. Knowing their physical needs for safety and access to resources are met can go a long way to soothe their anxiety.

Connection is another vital ingredient to an emotionally healthy horse. Horses are social beings, a huge part of their sense of safety comes from living in groups. Even if they feel safer separated from the other horses, knowing they are nearby is very important. Especially for horses who have anxiety over access to resources, they may prefer division from other horses, at least at first. Usually horses will find at least one or two other horses they bond with, adjusting their turn out or living environment so they can be with a horse they feel safely connected with. A huge key to telling if a horse feels safely connected with another horse is if they mutually groom. While other animals like sheep, goats, or donkeys may make good companions for a horse, unless previously bonded with them, they are not the ideal single companion. Our blind mini, Butterfly, struggles with relationships with other horses because she is not able to read their visual language. She enjoys her relationship with other horses when divided by a barrier, but in full contact the lack of clear communication is frightening for her and she becomes aggressive. However she lives very comfortably with her sheep, they are noisy so she always knows where they are and soft, should she bump into them. They also don’t bite or kick at her. But she is able to express mutual grooming and healthy equine-specific relationships with horses over a partition.

Don’t forget about your own connection with your horse. This will be important in helping overcome human-related trauma, but also giving them a safe relationship to depend on when other aspects of their life are imperfect (like travelling, moving homes, or medical issues). To develop a strong emotional connection with your horse, not just a good working relationship behaviorally, you’ll need to spend TIME. Horses connect with one another through touch, shared space, and shared resources. So we can mimic this to develop our interspecies relationship. Grooming in a way that is satisfying to our horse, not with the intent to make them clean, but to feel good. This is especially easy in the buggy season when our horses are itchy and appreciate a good rub down. I like to spend this grooming time out in their space, rather than bringing them in and putting them on a tie or in a closed stall (if we can). This way our relationship becomes a part of their life, not divided or separated from their day. Sharing space and sharing resources is easy, but requires time from us, which we often dismiss as “not constructive” because we aren’t doing anything. But this further integrates us into their life, rather than being a separate or interruptive part of their day. No, you don’t actually have to graze grass with them, but spending time sitting with them while they graze or doing positive training can go a long way to building positive associations.

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