Equine abuse is still an all-too-common reality in the horse world, even in an era where there is so much awareness around animal welfare. We often hear of abuse in light of neglect, trauma, or physical harm. But a word that’s not often associated with abuse is hope. While the reality of abuse is undeniable, we equestrians can rejoice in the fact that it doesn’t have to have the final word with the horses we love so much.
Today we’re not only outlining some ways that we can help our horses recover from abuse, but we’ll also be featuring some organizations that are already doing a great job in offering shelter to horses that have suffered abuse and neglect or offer solutions for horse owners who can no longer afford their horses.
Many Horses Can Recover from Abuse
The difficulty of working with horses that have been abused is the set of memories associated with the trauma they experienced. Their trauma often correlates with a mistrust of humans, either through aggression or withdrawal.
When a horse finds itself in a situation where they are no longer in danger, it will take time to rebuild that trust by creating a new bond and reinforcing positive memories. But the good news here is that often times, this is possible, at least to some degree. Here are a few ways that you can approach the recovery process for a formerly abused horse:
**Please note that we at Savvy Horsewoman are speaking from a combination of personal experience and research on the subject. We do not position ourselves as experts and advise you to do your own research on the process, including consulting professionals. We hope you will use this guide as a starting point in your journey to finding ways to help recover your horses.
- Leave the Agenda Up to the Horse: One of the most common roots of abuse is the notion of people forcing horses to do something that was either scary or ultimately harmful to them. Though it’s good to have an idea of activities you can do to engage with your horse, be aware of their body language and ways they may be saying “no” to you. Giving them the opportunity to say yes or no in a situation will unlock an incredible amount of trust (for more information on equine consent, check out the Equine Emotional Availability Course from Equestrian Movement in the Savvy Horsewoman Headquarters Membership!).
- Set Aside Time Just to Bond: As unproductive as it sounds, taking time to do absolutely nothing training-wise with your horse could be just the ticket to bonding more quickly. Things like reading to your horse while they’re in their stall, singing to them while grooming, taking time to do a T-Touch massage or simply watching them in their pasture in the afternoon can help your bond grow leaps and bounds. Not only will this create memories with you that are free from the pressure of learning and training, but it’ll also give you a window into their behavior if you make the effort to observe them as objectively as possible.
- Find Wins and Revisit Them: Most abused horses have triggers, and they likely won’t overcome them in the first day of working together. Usually, you’ll have to go back to the fundamentals in order to overcome their bigger fears. Doing simple things together that allow them to “win” quickly will go a long way in growing their confidence. Furthermore, when they find themselves flustered at learning something new or facing a scary situation, you can go back to these foundational exercises that they know so well and remind them of the things they did well prior. Check out Karen & Isaac’s story from Horse Rookie for a great example of using their wins to propel into overcoming Isaac’s fear of trailers (but don’t read it without a box of tissues). Foundation Essentials with Tanja Kraus Horsemanship is a great way to get quick wins with your horse. Check out this incredible course in the Savvy Horsewoman Headquarters Membership!
- Keep Your Earlier Sessions Short & Sweet: Any horse benefits from shorter sessions when learning something new. This is especially true of the abused horse, whose confidence is likely to be much more fragile. Try to always end on a good note and not push them past their overwhelm point. This is why allowing them to drive the agenda is so important. Horses respond really well to rest, so ending on a confident win for both of you is a great way to reinforce that they did something right and that they were rewarded.
- Call in the Experts: Abused horses can sometimes be puzzling. It’s never a bad idea to work with a trustworthy trainer, especially when faced with a horse that is excessively aggressive or gets stuck in a fear cycle. Even the second set of eyes may be enough to help you move past a rut together.
Equestrian Superheroes: Organizations Doing Their Part to Rescue and Rehabilitate
We are so fortunate to have countless organizations in our global equestrian community that are doing their part in helping horses through abuse and neglect. Here are just a few noteworthy establishments that are doing a whole lot of good, both in practice and in example:
- US Horse Welfare & Rescue: A 501c3 dedicated to promoting the “safety and well-being of America’s equines through advocacy, education, supportive programs and rescue, while fostering the safety and well-being of the human spirit through activities and programs”. The US Horse Welfare & Rescue works directly with the ASPCA and Humane Society to prevent the slaughter of horses in America.
- Redwings Horse Rescue & Sanctuary is the home of over 80 horses and donkeys in Monterey, California. They are dedicated to both rehoming and providing permanent sanctuary for horses in need.
- Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch: Founded by Kim and Troy Meeder in 1993 in beautiful Sisters, Oregon, CPYR is a home for abused horses to get a second chance in life. Their companions on the journey? Youth who come from backgrounds just as broken as theirs. Crystal Peaks is home to year-round horse rescue and care on their ever-expanding ranch, as well as riding sessions where youth ages six to eighteen can learn to ride one-on-one with a trainer. CPYR also hosts annual workshops to help similar organizations with the practical elements of running a horse rescue. You can read stories of healing at Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Kim’s book, Hope Rising.
- BLM Mustang Rescue: The Bureau of Land Management works to provide homes for the horses reflective of America’s heritage: Mustangs. Since 1971, BLM has placed more than 240,000 wild horses and burros into private care and helped the breed to live on. The organization also works in partnership with other mustang rescues, like Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary & Training Center, to ensure lasting human partnerships with a breed that is notably unique.
- The Retired Racehorse Project founded the Thoroughbred Makeover competition specifically to showcase the talent and versatility of off-the-track thoroughbreds. Each year, trainers compete with thoroughbreds with little experience outside of the track by retraining them in a different discipline. The competition not only inspires trainers to be involved in the successful retraining and rehoming of a talented breed that might otherwise be neglected but also offers a marketplace of retrained horses as a result of the competition.
Though the burden of equine abuse weighs heavy on the hearts of so many equestrians, the support for these incredible animals is beyond comprehension. Between those providing safe homes and retraining for traumatized horses and those fighting to provide better legislation and education, our community is brimming with ways to learn and be involved in the rehabilitation of horses who have endured abuse.
I’ve a pony that, with patience and consistency, is my go-to horse for hand walking to explore areas of the farm. Because of some trauma in her past, that includes scar tissue on the corner of her mouth, she is extremely reactive to head pressure. Panic sets in which makes her dangerous to ride. So we simply don’t ask that of her.
Regarding the rescue of an abused horse, back in 2010, a thoroughbred gelding made known his “appointment” with me. The “appointment” with him was almost not accepted. He was so big. However, having worked with track thoroughbreds long ago and recognizing his kind disposition, his “appointment was accepted. It didn’t take long at all for him to explain to me that someone had beaten him with gloves, specifically, the type of garden glove that has the black-rubber palm and the white elasticized knit on the back of the hand. He also explained that his personable-ness revealed itself in curiosity of which people took advantage of by intentionally spooking him for a laugh. It made me weep. It is 2018. He continues to be wary of the black-palmed glove. However, with one eye on the glove and one eye on me, he cautiously allows himself to be touched … it has taken eight years.
I own a horse who was abused as baby. We are unsure of what happened to him between the ages of 5 months and 25 months. He was very difficult to break to ride and it took me 6 weeks to get on him. His biggest issue was and still is working with his face and ears. He was also very under fed and figuring out how motivated he was by food was a game changer. He is one of the kindest horses I’ve ever been around. He made it to the race track as a 2yo and really did well. He made it to a race as a 3yo and it was the best last place finish ever. His breeder gave him to me after that race. It has taken 2 years for me to be able to touch his ears or have someone other than myself catch him in a large area. He still will not let me put anything over his head and rides in just a bit and crown piece. If someone he is not comfortable with trys to mess with his face or ears he can get mean and has flung his groom from the track into walls and struck him. He is still a work in progress but has come so far in the 2 years since he arrived in WA