Trauma in Horses
What does that even mean?
People are so used to seeing traumatised horses, they can’t see the trauma anymore.
Trauma - sounds almost like a trendy word. Why did it become so ‘trendy’? Because it’s literally everywhere.
What is "trauma"?
Trauma in the medical sense is a physical or psychological injury after an accident or shocking event. But emotional trauma goes much further than this and is not tied to a specific situation. What many horses experience in their lives is emotional trauma and that includes situations where they feel fearful, threatened, rejected, abandoned, unsafe, lonely, trapped, locked up or helpless. This can be a recurring situation, persistent circumstances, physical violence or long-term neglect of needs. Unfortunately, it is greatly underestimated to what extent horses experience fear and helplessness and that the use of strict and harsh training methods, or going too fast in training, is part of a traumatic experience.
Trauma happens in the part of our brains that all mammals inherit. It is therefore not a 'human only thing'. The traumatised parts in us are our mammal parts.
Trauma is how your body reacts to what happend - or not happend, but should have happend - to you. Trauma is the reaction to unmet needs and working through pain. Every pain.
How well your brain can works through pain forms the impact of the trauma. And that’s determined by your resilience - which again is determined by your met or unmet needs.
Needless to say, our life’s are full of it. And unfortunately a lot of people didn’t have the right set up to form good resilience.
Keeping animals in a human surrounding and neglecting their natural needs is also not really the right set up for resilience.
Read on trauma and defence mechanisms in humans in my earlier post: Defense mechanisms and trauma
I have met more traumatized horses than healthy horses in my life. And having met the uncompromised horse I can tell you …
Horses that turn away, flinch, shake, walk off, are hard to catch, shut down or say no in any way they can are the standard - but it's not normal.
Horses that approach, relax and ask for being touched, that don’t flinch or cringe while saddling or brushing, horses that enjoy movement and react subtle to communication signals are rare - but that’s how it should be (no matter the gender).
Stop downgrading real signs of discomfort and pain, whether they are short therm and physical or long term and mental, as characteristic or gender stereotypes.
Yes, he looked frightened when you approached with that bit. No, it’s not a bad habit to raise the head. Yes, her expression was sad and empty. No, he’s not lazy because he “wants to get out of work”.
These are nervous systems in overdrive. Stop and listen.
A healthy and happy horse, without trauma, naturally shows interest in its environment and therefore sees humans as an interaction partner. But every experience with humans will further determine whether and to what extent a horse enters into a conversation with humans.
If the horse learns that its communication reaches us well and we can even respond to it correctly, the horse will also quickly learn what we all say and try to understand us. This creates a 'conversation' and horse and human increasingly try to find a common consensus. “I learn from you and you learn from me”.
If the horse learns that the human does not respond to him, ignores his signals or even becomes threatening or unpredictable, frightens him and goes against his will, the horse will turn away or protest. Then the conversations becomes a battle, just like two people talking past each other or even shouting. The more and the longer the horse feels unheard, the louder it may start to 'scream' - or completely close itself off from interaction with humans. This is how 'vices', 'problem horses' or 'lazy horses' are created - and also 'bombproof horses', which let everything be done to them, without any expression in their eyes.
How can I help a traumatised horse?
So chances are high you bought a horse with trauma, if you didn't bring him up himself from the very first interaction with humans, up to weaning, accommodation and first training sessions.
The first trauma most horses are going through is getting weaned too early. This is creating separation anxiety, as well as being kept alone and unstable herds and moving a lot. This can manifest itself in what we often call "buddy sour" or "barn sour", a horse that doesn't want to leave the field or barn, that gets stressed when other leaves, scream, rear or bolt when being pushed over threshold. From being a little annoying to dangerous, separation anxiety is something to be taken seriously all the time, before we make it worse with the wrong handling. Because the emotional and hormonal cocktail during separation anxiety is a strong one that even plays more into trauma, creating and manifesting it.
Other traumas can be: being hit by the handler, whether with the hand or an object or whip. Being forced onto a trailer so the trailer itself becomes the trigger of trauma. A bad saddle fit or ulcers that cause severe pain during riding, so saddling or riding becomes the trigger of trauma. Getting hurt by a sharp bit, having had an accident, sudden loud noises or frightening sights in combination with a certain area and so on.
First aid in separation anxiety and trauma handling is therefore avoiding the triggers. This can be a challenge in our world, as we often don't allow ourselves nor our animals to take up time and space for healing, because life must go on. But the longer we stall healing, the longer it will take.
Second aid is always making baby steps. If you can think of breaking up a goal like leaving the barn for 20 meters into 10 meters at a time, break them down again. And again. And again. If you think of taking 10 minutes for this, make it twice as long. And twice more of that.
Third aid is learning and teaching how to regulate emotions, first outside the trigger and in baby steps, before adding this to the actual problem. We can teach our horses to regulate their emotions with focus, relaxation, play and care. How you apply and teach this can be in many different ways, as long as it always stays positive for the horse. Adding fear to an already frighten horse will not teach anything.
Focus can be doing a certain task like targeting an object. Relaxation can be breathing together, lowering the head, massaging, rolling - allowing the horse to display calming signals and retreat from a stressor.
Play can be allowing the pattern of approach and retreat, having another confident horse, the whole group or even a cherished human as a role model in approaching a stressor.
Care can be tending to another horse or cherished human, being stroked and patted, being fed and allowing social interaction and reassurance when needed.
The whole process of healing trauma is so individual and personal as the horse and the handler. There is no one size fits it all and no paved path. And it takes time, more than you might think. Add some more time to your expectations, so much, that you almost give up your expectations. And then, your horse and the healing will positively surprise you.
The amount of trauma in our equestrian world - whether it's in humans or horses - has made us blind and numb to experiencing ourselves and others. We can not distinguish characteristics from emotions, healthy from sick or happiness from pain anymore.. We can not see the trauma we cause(d) and defend what we so wrongly believe in.
A horse that doesn’t show his emotions anymore has stopped doing so for a reason. It’s no character sign to be ever silent - or ever fighting. It is trauma.
But if we allow our selves, just a tiny bit, the advantage of doubt, .. look around you, what do you see in their eyes?