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Trauma in Horses

I don’t think people realize just how many horses out there carry trauma with them.

With that, I don’t even mean severely abused horses that have been starved, or beaten heavily. There are plenty of those around, and those usually cause a lot of outrage (as they should).

What I am talking about though, is the horses whose trauma is never really recognized as such. The ones who tolerate humans and their requests, but never learned to trust them. Those who get extremely obsessive about food which are labelled as “bossy” or ”dominant”. Those who deal with severe Separation anxiety, which are said to be “dramatic”. Those who cannot self-regulate, or co-regulate and constantly carry tension. Those who try to express their pain, which get punished for it because “just a mare”.

Those who are “perfect” until they finally get a choice.

Between Unethical weaning practices, unsuitable welfare, constantly moving homes & and ownership, and aversive training/handling approaches, most horses at some point experience trauma. And this trauma can present itself in a variety of ways. Some are more subtle than others.

Trauma doesn’t have to be this huge explosive reaction. Just like people, horses can carry trauma and move on with their lives fairly normally. It can shape their personality just like it can shape ours.

However, that doesn’t mean doing so is healthy.

The horse that has been in 6+ homes before the age of 10, and thus can’t cope with changes. That is Trauma.

The horse that has never had consistent companionship and becomes obsessive with certain herd mates. That is Trauma

The horse that has only known corrections when they tried to express their confusion, fear, or dislike, and turns from “a perfect beginner’s horse” to “Don’t touch me” the moment you stop using corrections. That is Trauma.

The horse that never had a chance to learn from other horses or connect with people and thus can’t trust people to make good choices for them, can’t self-regulate or co-regulate, and can’t think their way through a situation. That is Trauma.

The horse who was only ever fed 2 times a day and was left without food for 6 hours each night, and has thus become food-aggressive. That is Trauma.

The horse who experienced highly aversive training techniques, and thus now gets frustrated, tense and severely stressed out anytime they are handled in a similar manner. That. Is. Trauma.

Sometimes, awareness of this can be a frustration and defeating realization. I think as equestrians we are often blind to this reality, because sadly, it’s just so common to see horses like that.

It’s not until you work with young, untraumatized horses, or rehabilitated horses, that you realize: “Oh! This is how it should be!”

How can you help a horse with trauma?

So say you just got a horse, and you suddenly realize that this horse has some deep seated trauma they carry around.

It can feel overwhelming, and hard to know how you can help this horse.

So here’s what I’ve found, in my experience, are the most important things you can do for your horse.

•A predictable & consistent routine

— allows your horse to feel a sense of safety.

•3 F’s (Friends, Freedom, Forage)

— give plenty and give freely! Allow them to learn to trust that they will never be short on those things again!

•Training & Handling that allows for choice & freedom

— This gives your horse back a sense of agency and autonomy.

•Learn how to read your horse, and listen to them.

— Show your horse that you see them. Reassure them. This will increase your horses confidence & trust in humans.

•Learn how to stop BEFORE they have to escalate or the situation escalates.

— same as above!

•And the most Important and also the most neglected and undervalued part of it. PATIENCE AND TIME

—If you get to a point where you feel like you’ve given your horse enough time, GIVE THEM MORE TIME! If you’re starting to feel frustrated that they should be okay, but are not. Remember, it can take people years and years of therapy to get over traumas that were caused by emotionally immature parents, emotional neglect, or authoritarian parenting. So while horses are not quite as complex as humans, they still take a long, long time to work through their past experiences. So please, give your horses time!

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