The PTSD Horse

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Perhaps you can still remember that breathless moment before you hit the ground, the searing pain of twisting your wrist, and the thunderous sound of your horse kicking and neighing desperately beside you, tangled in the jump.  It's kind of ingrained in there, but that was over two weeks ago, and you need to get back in the saddle.  It's the only way to get over it.

But now every time you get close to a jump, your horse goes tense; he steps back, rears and fights you as though his life depends on it.  He's scared, scared of falling again.  And now you're left wondering: how do you teach a horse to get back in the saddle?  How do you help a horse with post traumatic stress disorder?

PTSD is a tragic mental condition in which a patient will be reminded, or "triggered,"  by certain events under specific circumstances.  A good example would be an abused dog, cringing away, or attacking someone holding a stick.  A patient usually slides quite easily into the traditional fight-or-flight modes, and anyone who has a traumatic experience can suffer from PTSD.

But some of you might be asking: isn't PTSD associated mostly with war veterans and human abuse victims?  Yes it is, but many scientists believe animals can suffer from this condition as well.

"There is never a physical trauma without an associated psychological trauma," says Professor Gordon Tumball, who has studied PTSD at length.  "Trauma is something experienced by everyone -- including animals -- and anyone who has worked with abused horses will very quickly tell you that these animals can be unpredictable, aggressive, moody, or depressive, and all these symptoms correlates to PTSD."

Horses (and people) can be traumatized by almost anything: a bad fall, bad riders, riding crops, or even a feed bowl.  The problem is we often translate their fears and insecurities into "he's being naughty" or "he's just being stubborn" or even "spoiled," which isn't exactly always the case.

Some horses are more prone to these types of issues, and by forcing them into that little box you want them to fit into, they react the only way they know how: fight or flight.  Instead you should use the fear to identify the problem, be mindful of it, and work toward fixing it.  And remember, trauma can be a slow thing to manifest; it doesn't have to be overnight.

A 4-year-old saddlebred called Romily went through this exact thing.  She was supposed to be trained for three-gait use, but her trainer was too ignorant to train her properly.  The trainer failed to recognize she was doing more harm than good, and the horse was too sweet to tell her off.  Eventually the mare "snapped" and started kicking at her own tail, and a week or so later flipped over and landed on top of her rider.  After this, she was sold at rock-bottom price.

But how can you help a horse with PTSD?

Identifying PTSD in a horse is the first step.  Sure signs are sudden mood swings, shutting down, depressive moods, dissociation, poor immune systems, digestion problems (such as colic), and of course, aggression.  These symptoms may vary in severity, consistency, and predictability, which makes a horse with PTSD quite dangerous.

In an article about PTSD in horses, Kerry T. Thomas writes: "To therapy the issues, each issue or perceived association has to be addressed.  We need the trigger to facilitate transition."

War veterans are told to get exercise, go outside, reconnect with people, and take the time to get used to uncomfortable emotions.  Horses get a lot of exercise and they live outside, but how do you explain emotions to a horse?  You need to trigger those emotions in a safe environment, which is exactly what Romily's new owner did.

When Romily was sold, the new owner quickly recognized the problems.  Her old rider had yanked and pulled at the bit constantly, trying to force the horse's head up.  She'd also hit her with a crop every time the horse didn't lift her head, and after every ride she'd put her in a surcingle, which worked the neck muscles even more.  Because Romily was an extremely sensitive saddlebred, she reacted the only way she could.

She attacked her tail out of frustration, she wind-sucked because she was under a lot of pressure, and she reared up because she'd been terrified.  The new owner took her to the field and left her there for well over six months, for a process he dubbed "detoxing."  He gave her food and water, but in general, just let her be, giving her the time she needed to find herself.  After this he brought her to a small arena, where he gave her free rein, with no saddle and no gear, and gentle desensitizing and re-association of humans.

How this is done is not unlike how you might train an undamaged horse, by creating environments that enable smooth transitions into comfort zones.  If the horse reacts negatively to a rake, take the time to ensure a positive connectivity to the object.  Desensitizing is an excellent place to start, and a good routine (feeding time, work time, play time) is a must for any horse suffering from PTSD.

The main thing you need to remember is that this is a slow process.  It can take a lifetime for a horse to recover from a trauma, and sometimes it doesn't even work.  The study of PTSD in horses is a relatively new phenomenon, and more data is needed to truly help horses with these conditions.  But as a rider, it is your responsibility to not only take this into account, but to identify the problem and help these horses get through it as best you can.

How else will you help them get back in the saddle?

 

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