Rescue Horses and PTSD… Is There a Connection?
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
This blog post is meant for helpful insight, taken from my personal experience and thoughts, which I have
developed over the years. I am not a Psychiatrist, or a Doctor, nor am I claiming any medical title.
A friend of mine, who works with those with PTSD (U.S. Military), explained to me that PTSD in the human brain happens when the brain can no longer understand the “WHY” behind what happened or what appened to them.
I believe the horse’s form of PTSD works EXACTLY the same way!
Let me explain…
Imagine if someone corrects a horse (for whatever reason), and the individual can explain to the horse the “WHY” behind the correction. The horse has a *better chance* of understanding the problem and can learn from the mistake. Like people, horses can make mistakes too. Let’s be honest though, most of the time it is humans that mess up! If horses (or humans) do NOT understand the “WHY” behind the reason they are being punished/corrected/schooled, it is possible to create a form of PTSD in their mind.
Try thinking of PTSD this way…
Post = In the past, previous event
Traumatic = Unpleasant experience possibly involving physical/emotional pain
Stress = Confusion, Frustration, Anxiety, Tension
Disorder = Ailment, Problem, Issue
As horse lovers, owners, trainers, riders, or perhaps just being decent human beings, it
is important to be aware of how past experiences impact people and horses alike. By understanding this concept better, we can gain the trust of those in our care, and that is not exclusive to just horses. The principle is applicable to working students, clients, staff, etc.
I have worked with both "non-rescues" and "rescue horses" for a number of years now. Yes, one could simply say, "Rescue horses have more fear...” and though that might be the case for some absolutely, I do not believe it is true in ALL cases. I have met some incredibly BRAVE rescues that did not have a fear problem at all, but PTSD? …Nine times out of ten, yes. Nearly every rescue I have worked with has some variance of PTSD, everything from mild to very severe. Now, does that mean ALL rescues have PTSD? No, of course not! What about “non-rescues?” Are they incapable of ever developing PTSD? Sadly, they can. The sad truth is more horses suffer (in one form or another) with PTSD than most riders or trainers realize.
Training through PTSD can be a little tricky, and takes a little more tact / grace to handle than perhaps a “non-troubled” case. Just like people, this process of overcoming PTSD (or trying to overcome) CANNOT be put into a “one size fits all” “cookie cutter” “calculated calendar dates” expectation! For horses that suffer from extreme "I do NOT know WHY this or that is happing to me," it is NOT an easy choice for them to trust again!
PTSD can affect one or more areas in any horse’s daily life such as:
Any and all ground work or handling of the equine
Any and all riding work
New or changing places
Separation anxiety from other horses, or even people
Take “Miss Cinnamon” for example:
She was intercepted at an auction in the summer of 2017. She was a mental mess. She had been heavily abused in the head/face and had been ridden in a *RAZOR WIRE bit* damaging/scarring 80+% of her tongue.
…WHY people? JUST WHY?!!?...
I think it is safe to say there would be some PTSD about EVER having a bit in her mouth again. She was labeled CRAZY by her sellers. They claimed that no one could ever ride her or get her head down! That’s why the razor bit had been used… to make her get her head down.
**(Side note: I do not understand why “getting a horse’s head down” became so much more important that the horse’s own physical wellbeing? WHY did they resort to such a HORRIBLE method?!?! There are much better ways, *if you must,* such as trust! Rant over)**
When she arrived at her new loving home and haven, she was defensive and angry. Do you blame her? Cinnamon’s previous abusers were unfair and very misguided. She would show us her “tough girl face” in hopes that NO ONE would EVER hurt her again.
When I met her in the fall of 2017, we tried a side pull on her and worked on the ground to rebuild a line of trust. Then later, under saddle, she lowly learned what it meant to stretch and reach for the connection. She would move over her back (with relaxation and rhythm). This created HOPE where there once was PTSD in her life (NO bit required). Now Cinnamon is always happy to see people and loves to go for a ride! Her structure (“Topline”) has COMPLETELY changed for the better and she has learned that “going round” helps her far beyond just riding. As soon as she learned how to move forward willingly to the contact/over her back, she developed correct muscles all on her own. She and I now have a special bond, because I, too, have felt “used harshly” in my past, and she was able to teach me far more about hope than I could ever take credit for teaching her.
Cinnamon's success is in the fact that she was shown HOW and WHY coming "over her back" / “coming round” / “using her back and core” was a good thing! She discovered that she not only moved and felt better, but that it was enjoyable and for her own good, not just my benefit. It is better to try and explain the “HOW and WHY” instead of a device forcing the “HOW and WHY” right out of the situation. After all, what is trust, love, and partnership if it only comes by force?
Perhaps in another post I can share how I believe horses can help people with PTSD even if they (the horses) themselves had experience the same pain.
*(Disclaimer: I am not “anti bit!” But I do believe that every rider should try and look at every training situation with an open mind and ask themselves, “What would set my horse up best for success today?!” For Cinnamon's success, I felt it was the best choice for her to go in a bit-less bridle. In order for her to gain my trust, it was clear to me she needed to learn the HOW and the WHY to overcome her PTSD without the drama of asking her to carry a bit.)*
So, in conclusion, whether you yourself, your horse, a horse you know, or perhaps a loved one you know, suffers from PTSD, I hope these words give some hope, clarity, food for thought, and help you better understand the mind of those who struggle with the “WHY” behind it all.