As horse owners, I truly believe we all love our horses. They are expensive to own and take a lot of time to care for, so no one goes into it with bad intentions. Thus, I certainly do not believe we intentionally create trauma in our horses. However, if we have owned horses for a long enough time, there is every chance that you will have created trauma in your horse. I know I have.
This is not a shame and guilt show, there is no room for that here. I am here to gently open your eyes to possibilities, give you things to think about. Hopefully then you may be able to take this to your horse and make small changes that can make the world a better place for your horse, and thus for you too.
Horses are prey animals, and this means that they live in a world where they are only ever attacked. As humans we are at the top of the food chain, so we have to imagine what it would be like to be prey. Imagine living day to day wondering if today is the day you are going to be eaten? If you are a Woman you may be able to imagine this possibly quite well. It would be like walking home in a city at 2am on a Saturday night through a place well known for Women being attacked. Horses hold this in their DNA and nervous system, domestication has not taken this response from them and I don’t believe it ever will.
Rachel Beddingfield from Connection Training, in her podcast interview said “We have the habit of calling horses silly, tell them to not be crazy and we laugh at their spookiness. But their brains are designed to do that. I would have a suspicion that domestic horses have an even higher wired fear system than feral horses, because they are living in an environment that is constantly triggering that fear and they can’t run away.”
When horses are in a situation they consider a threat, they go into the mode of fight, flight or freeze. Fight and Flight are healthy responses. They either fight the predator, or they are able to run away. Fight and Flight are the ability to release the trauma from their system, here they are in some kind of control and are able to shift the energy from their nervous system. This clears the trauma and they are able to function normally again.
If they are not able to fight or flight, then they have a freeze response. This is where the trauma gets trapped in their body. Like when you see a Gazelle captured by a Lion and they go limp, almost like they leave their conscious body and hand their body over for the Lion to eat.
If the trauma is frozen in the body, it needs to be defrosted, thawed from the system. This can be done by professional, but it can also be done by you as the horse owner.
6 Ways we Create Trauma in our Horse
First, we need to understand the common causes of trauma in horses.
This is a list of the way we create trauma in our horses. Do not despair! I will give you some tips of what you can do about it as well.
1. Keeping a Horse by itself.
Horses are prey animals, they are also herd animals, this is a fact.
Imagine, as I said above, living your life wondering if today is the day you are going to be eaten? And then imagine what that would be like checking for dangers and threats if you were alone? Especially when you are hard wired in your nervous system and DNA to be a part of a herd.
The role of the herd is to each keep an eye out in different directions, checking for potential threats. Then to let everyone else in the herd know through body language to be aware.
If you were alone trying to see if there was a threat all day every day, and all night every night, then you can start to understand the heightened state you would be in. You could not lay down to sleep as there is no one to watch over you. You could not digest or absorb your food as your nervous system would be in a constant state of fight and flight.
You may think about the example of walking home alone that I gave above. Getting home safe allows you to relax and feel safe again. You can let down and let go. If a horse is not in a herd environment, then they do not come out of this state of heightened threat. They do not get to let down and let go.
In time horses that are alone may very well become switched off and depressed. This is because their nervous system can take no more. They have what is called learned helplessness. Where they function day to day but are not really present. This might be the quite bomb proof horse that will let you do anything to it and with it. It has checked out. You can see this in the horse’s eyes. It is either present, awake and responsive or shut down, blank and almost like it’s not there.
2. Keeping a horse locked in a stable/stall
For the reasons that are similar to keeping a horse alone, box stalls or stables can have a similar effect on some horses.
Stable prevent horses from interacting with their neighbours. This means with no herd they are in constant state of fear of being eaten and unable to run away as they are locked in a small space.
Nottingham Trent University did a study that showed isolated horses kept in stables suffered a higher stress level and become harder to manage.
This may very well be their flight response to work on getting the trauma from the night before out. And if they can’t do flight, then they have to fight. And if they can’t fight, then the freeze response happens. Then we have another horse with learned helplessness.
Rachel Beddingford, in her podcast interview also talks about having horses in stables with a viewing space of other horses. “There are stables that have doors open enough for horses to see and interact with each other. This can be a good thing if the horses already live in close quarters with this horse and consider them a part of their herd. However, when horses first meet each other they take their time to be close. They use the ability to create space as a way to get to know each other slowly, coming together over time. When they are in a stall next to a horse they do not know, this takes away the choice of space. This can lead to aggressive behaviour in a horse, which is very unnatural for them.” If this is not recognised and fixed, this too can lead to trauma.
3. Weaning your foal by forced separation
This is one that is easy to forget about when you buy a horse. If you were not a part of the weaning process, then you may not give it a second thought.
As a human you can imagine this one as you are a child of your parents. Imagine if at the age of 1 year old, or less, when you are still breast feeding and feeling the love, security and closeness of your mother, someone takes you away and says, “that’s enough now, time for you to fend for yourself”.
Even if we translate this to older human years like 10 or 11, it’s still too young for us as humans to cope. Thus, why are we expecting horses to cope?
Horse do not cope with this. It causes them trauma that they carry for life, unless you work with them to release it.
Anna Collis from Harmony with Horses said in a podcast interview I did with her that this was an underlying factor behind horses that presented with ulcers and separation anxiety.
A less traumatic way to wean you foal is to allow your horse to wean when they are ready. You can give them time to get used to separation slowly. You can put them in separate paddocks for one day at a time, returning together for a few days and then doing it again, slowly increasing the amount of time apart. Then slowly taking the foal out without the mother for a walk. All this time building connection with you and confidence in the foal.
Weaning does not have to be traumatic. It will take more time and care to do it without trauma. However, the long term benefits for you, and both mother and foal will far outweigh the extra time taken.
4. Breaking in, being sent to the trainers
When it is time for a young horse to be broken in, or backed, or started, whichever term you choose, it can still be a very traumatic experience, no matter how gentle your trainer is.
As a herd animal you are taken away from your herd, your safe place and your human. Thrust into a completely new environment. Then you are expected to learn something completely new and do it fast so that it doesn’t cost your owner lots of money!
The environment set up for young horses to learn something new can absolutely cause trauma due to the separation anxiety from being taken away from their herd, even if they go into a new herd at the trainers.
As above, if horses are given time to be comfortable away from the herd in small increments. The trauma can definitely be averted. Take them out on adventures. Get them inquisitive and interested in the world around them without their herd.
Be sure you either spend time at the trainers each day so they have someone familiar there with them. You could have the trainer come to you and get to know your horse before having them sent away. This is the best option in my opinion as you can then see if they connect well together and how your horse responds to them.
The message here is like the weaning, time and trust. It may take longer, but the long-term benefits are well worth it.
5. Training Methods
Horses, like children, take time to learn something new. And also, like children, the way they learn can cause joy and inquisitiveness or trauma.
Children take a long time to learn to read and write. This is the aim of their first year in school. The amount of repetition they have to do is enormous. They learn it through listening, writing and movement in their body. They associate sounds and pictures together to start to form the ability to read.
I am using this example because when we train something new with our horses, sometimes we do not consider how long it may take them to learn. There are times where if we are impatient and miss the cue that the horse is trying, then we can cause trauma.
A horse may very well feel threatened by the fact that they have just had a saddle strapped to their back and haven’t been given a choice. If they then buck and go into a flight response to get it off and it is not removed immediately, then it can cause trauma. Like when the Lion takes the Gazelle, they give themselves over to the monster on their back and go into learned helplessness.
Tying a horse to a post for the first time and letting them fight until the can’t get away and give up for the same reasons as the saddle, can cause trauma.
Even not giving a horse the time to understand what you are asking can make them anxious and lead to trauma if they are not able to fight or flight.
Sarah Schlote from EQUUSOMA spoke about her own horse’s trauma to objects that came from when he was trained. He was simply trained too fast and his nervous system could not cope. Her was flooded and this caused ongoing trauma.
The goal is not to put the horse under extreme stress and hope they learn to cope. It’s about having engaged, inquisitive and horses that love working with you learning something new.
If you slow down, find the point at which your horse tries to do what you have asked and reward the try, your horse will respond in a completely different way. They will become more inquisitive, more responsive to your requests.
Hannah Western in her podcast interview spoke about the horse’s natural reaction to stress is to leave the situation, this is why liberty training is so important if you do not want to traumatise your horse. You can do this with your horse on a lead as well, but you have to be so aware of the moment they switch off and would like to leave.
If the horse wants to leave a training situation as it is too much for them and they are not allowed to, this can cause trauma. If you hold them, force them, repeat the same exercise too many times, this can cause trauma.
Rachel Beddingford says “Typically in domestic situations horses get little choice over their life. And it’s known that choice is one of the biggest rewards the brain can have. So the fact that their food is chosen for them. When their food is given to them is chosen for them. Their companions are chosen for them, if they have any. Whether they go in or go out is chosen for them. Whether they get a rug on or whether they don’t get a rug on. All these things are chosen for them. And many domestic horses’ brains are so underused, and they are in a state of mild depression if they’re not in a state of anxiety and stress.”
If this is allowed to continue, then it most certainly can create trauma.
I’m not an expert trainer. If you are looking for one you can choose from one of the many trainers I have interviewed on the Come Along for the Ride Podcast. They all do online training as well as clinics all over the world. It will take time to transition, but as you may now realise, taking extra time now brings enormous benefit in the future. If you take extra time now, things will be able to speed up in the future.
6. Changing homes, leaving friends behind.
In the podcast episode with Anna Collis we spoke about how she likened horses who have had 4 or 5 homes before the age of 10 to foster children.
Imagine how much trauma you would have if you had to move homes away from your mother before your choice? And then every few years when your human grows out of you and you leave your herd and safe place and go to a new home.
Just like foster children, the simple fact of having so many homes over those developmental years, can cause lifelong trauma. Horses are the same.
As I’ve said before, this can be done in a way that does not cause trauma by the wonderful use of time. Taking your time to transition the horse from your home and herd to their new home, heard and human. Short trips, getting to know each other. Slowly stretching the time longer and longer until you know they feel comfortable with the change.
What can we do if your horse already has trauma?
Above I have written about ways that you can be more aware and stop trauma happening in the first place. However, what do you do if you horse already has trauma?
I’m so glad you asked!
There is an invitation for you here to become an expert on your horse’s nervous system.
In the podcast with Sarah Schlote we talk extensively about what you can do to work with horses who have trauma. We talk about starting from when you first approach your horse how do they respond to you?
Do they nicker willingly, or do they tense slightly?
Do they move away a little?
If you see your horse move away or start to tense up then you could stop, take a deep breath, relax your body, take the pressure off your horse. When they get tense, what happened before that? What was the signal before the trigger?
Your horse may be giving you a calming signal. This is a signal that lets you know that they are feeling pressure and they’d like some of that taken off them. They may like you to relax your energy as it is too much for them. You can learn more about calming signals by listening to the podcast with Anna Blake or Rachaël Draaisma.
To work with trauma in your horse it takes time.
It also requires the horse and human to be in a place of safety. The nervous system needs to be in a relaxed state to be able to heal.
Sarah Schlote speaks about not only working on Trauma within your horse. You may like to also look at the amount of tensions and possible trauma that is in your own body. We know very well by now that our horses respond to their environment and communicate through body language. Thus, if we approach our horses with tension or trauma in our nervous system, they will respond to this every time. If you have tension in your body, they will think there is a threat nearby and will go into fight, flight or freeze.
You and your horse are in a real relationship. The horse is not a mirror, it is a real living breathing being that you are in a full relationship with. If your horse has trauma, you need to be able to facilitate a safe place for them to release.
Creating this space of safety and relaxation for your horse, allows them to feel safe enough to release trauma over time. You are re-writing their nervous systems story by creating safety and working with them from that place.
I would highly recommend working with you horse in liberty so that they have the choice to move away. This alone can create a feeling of trust and safety that can lay the pathways for healing trauma.
You can also hire someone to do the release of trauma for you like Anna Collis from Harmony for Horses. There are great people out there who work specifically with trauma in horses. Do your research and ask for references.
To work with trauma in your horse it is best for you to do some learning first. Here are a multitude of resources for you to explore which all give you great examples of things that you can do to help your horse.
I hope you found this article informative and if you want to join other conscious horse lovers please join my amazing Facebook Group: Eden River Equestrian Group.
Here are the full podcast episodes for each trainer mentioned above.
Tracy is a Conscious Horse Person, Entrepreneur, Podcaster, Blogger, Holistic Counsellor. A Grower of Organic Food and a builder of Community. She explores many topics about being conscious in the horse world, conscious about both horses and the environment.