Guest post by Lindsey from Alta Mira Horsemanship.
Abuse is a reality that is all too common in the horse world. Many of us have had abused horses cross our paths at one point or another.
While I don’t think that all abuse is intentional, for the equines impacted, it changes their life forever.
Some horses are lucky enough to land in the hands of a caring new owner. That is our hope for every horse that has been abused.
Every horse will tell you about their past abuse in different ways. Some will be incredibly aggressive; others will be skittish. Others yet will be loners, keeping to themselves and not interested in interaction whatsoever.
Many horses will be a combination of all of these things depending on the level and length of abuse they experienced.
However they tell you about their past harm, the greatest challenge with an abused horse is their memory.
All their behavior stems back to the reality of their trauma, because to them it is still imminent. From an instinctual perspective, to forget what happened to them is to set themselves up for harm again.
Depending on how significantly they were traumatized, the horse may or may not be able to differentiate the difference between a trustworthy human and an untrustworthy one.
So remember in all the following steps, time is certainly your friend.
Remain consistent and steady in your approach and responses to your horse, and they will see in time that you are not like their past handlers.
Recovering an abused horse is not for everyone, so please let me caution those who are new to horses or are skittish around them: this work is not for the faint of heart, but it doesn’t take an expert, either.
Today we will cover the basic approaches to take when rehabilitating an abused horse.
Please note that I am not a veterinarian nor an adequate judge of your abilities with a traumatized horse. Please proceed with caution and rely on your own equestrian mentors and professionals if you have any question about your ability to safely recover the abused horse in question.
If you have an equine that you’re fighting for right now, whether a recent rescue or a horse you’ve had for a long time that just doesn’t seem to be improving, here are five tips to begin their rehabilitation:
1. Find Out As Much As You Can
If you are in touch with the last owner, find out everything you can about your horse’s past. Remember, the horse is in good hands now, so there is no need to take up a soapbox.
Being critical will most likely cause someone to shut down and leave you with less information than you could have gotten by just asking.
Gather any information about past owners, past boarding situations, behavioral issues, and health conditions. Behavioral issues will be an indicator of the horse being beaten or terrorized.
Their health background can provide you with information that will help you recover them through their nutrition, pain recovery, disease treatment, and musculoskeletal rehabilitation.
2. Consult Your Vet and Make a Plan
Before making a plan for retraining the abused horse, you will want to map out your process for their physical recovery.
If the horse is dealing with ongoing pain or food insecurity, the training could easily go belly-up due to a physical ailment they are dealing with. So make an appointment with your vet for a comprehensive exam.
This is definitely not the time to skimp on blood tests or other medical evaluations that could determine your new horse’s nutrition deficiencies, pain sources, diseases, or other ailments.
Be sure to tell your vet that the horse has suffered abuse and all of the history that you have gathered so they can be best-informed as well. After you’ve gotten the full results and recommendations from your vet, make a plan for their physical rehabilitation.
This may include a multi-stage feeding process and other specialists like a massage therapist or chiropractor. Try to find a good farrier who will be sensitive to a horse that is in recovery as well.
Related: A Partnership Like Ours – Karen & Isaac
3. Create a Routine
Horses, like humans, find comfort in consistency. Their fear begins to unwind when they know what they can expect.
With your new rehabilitation plan in mind, start creating a routine for feeding, turnout, mucking their enclosure, training, and bonding time together.
For everything that you would want to do with them on a day-to-day basis, give it a specific order and time every day. And if you have to incorporate something new into their rehabilitation or training schedule, tack it on to another one of their established routines.
4. Establish Leadership
This seems like a tricky step, because the horse that has been abused will likely have a fearful experience with their last “leader” (I say in quotes because a real leader will not be cruel).
Regardless, in order for your horse to start trusting you and feeling that they don’t need to fend for themselves, they will need to understand you as the leader in the dynamic.
So, establish basic boundaries when handling. Likewise when you begin retraining, provide your horse the structure and consistency your horse needs for rehabilitation (Read more about providing structure HERE).
In doing so, you will build their trust exponentially, because in contrast to their past, your leadership will be kind.
5. Spend Extra Time Bonding
When rehabilitating an abused equine, taking extra time to rebuild trust is crucial. Start working on bonding with your horse as soon as you possibly can. But remember to not take their withdrawal or aggression personally.
Many abused horses will either be skittish, tense, or prone to biting and kicking. Make sure to stay safe, approach them carefully and unassumingly (keeping your body language calm and non-confrontational), and offer something to them.
This offering can be a treat, gentle touch, a soothing voice, or just your peaceful presence with them. As small as these gestures may seem, these little moments add up and become a substantial bond with time.
All that an abused horse needs is someone to fight for them. Behind every recovered horse is someone who simply did not give up on them.
If you have found yourself in the position of rescuing a horse, remember that the whole equestrian community is cheering you on. Remember to lean on your fellow equestrian friends for support and encouragement and celebrate every single victory towards wholeness for the abused horse as he/she recovers.
Even with this one horse, you are making the horse world a better place. And for this one horse, you are transforming their world of pain and fear into something beautiful and safe.
Have you rehabilitated an abused horse? What were some challenges or beautiful moments that arose from that process?
Lindsey Rains is an equestrian blogger and creator of Alta Mira Horsemanship. She focuses on communication between horse and rider, with an emphasis in kind training tactics. She resides in Kent, WA, USA, with her husband, and daylights as a non-profit administrator. Visit her blog. You can also follow her on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.