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‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’

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ABUSED/NEGLECTED HORSES - REHAB

Part 2



In Part 1, I discussed what it takes to help a horse with a rough past and asked the tough questions a horse owner must answer honestly before committing to an abused horse. In Part 2, we move on to some tips for gaining trust and starting the retraining and rehabilitation process. But first, it’s vital to reiterate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work with all abused horses. Some common denominators include consistency, patience, knowledge and time, but each horse will need an individualized approach.

 

Building Trust
When working with this type of horse, building trust is vital, and isn’t something you attain once and then never think about again.  Maintaining the behaviors that your horse sees as trustworthy is imperative.  If there’s one thing an abused horse needs it’s consistency and behaving the same way under each situation.  “Inconsistency in humans is very damaging for horses, especially when the human wavers between the extremes of being buddies with the horse and later getting so mad or frustrated that the horse is yelled at, hit or worse,” says Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara, MSW, animal behaviorist and social worker specializing in animal-assisted therapy for clients with abuse and trauma history.   Our inconsistency results in a horse that becomes very distrustful and can lead to some very unpredictable behaviors.” 

I have worked with dozens of abused horses over the years and their owners. “Being consistent and dependable really helps them start to trust humans. We began by feeding, watering and cleaning pens at the exact same times every day. Then over time, we handled the horses in the same consistent way. For abused horses and especially for those that are really trouble emotionally and mentally, this absolute dependability is very important for them.”   “When animals have been with people who use a dominant style of training, where demands must be carried out immediately and without question, and they are later placed with people who are less demanding and less consistent, their potential for explosion is much higher,” Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara says. 

Change Your Mindset
Horses live in the present. To help them the most, we need to do the same. Constantly thinking back to the pain or mistreatment our horses experienced does not help them move on to a better future.   “If we start changing the terminology for horses with rough pasts from ‘abused’ to ‘mishandled,’ think how that changes our context,” Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara suggests. “When we work with a mishandled horse, it puts the requirement on us to be consistent and fair, rather than sorry and pitying.”  It’s also important to recognize that a horse generally isn’t acting a certain way; spooky for example because it’s being silly or ‘testing’ us. It has a valid reason for its behavior and we need to recognize that there’s something really going on for the horse.  I treat abused horses the way I do all my other horses, everything I do is with their best interests in mind but I don’t tiptoe around them because of their past. Doing that may worry them more than if I just go about working  in a calm, consistent and matter-of-fact way.

Set Rules and Boundaries
Just as it’s important to move on from the past, it’s crucial to establish expectations for what is allowed and not allowed.   Just because a horse had a tough past doesn’t mean it can push on us, step on our toes or walk over the top of us. ”I think a lot of people get abused horses and then make excuses for behavior because of what they’ve been through.  The person thinks that making a correction will be overwhelming to the horse,” Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara says.  She adds, “The real issue is how you will respond if the horse doesn’t do what you ask. Will you become totally unglued, unpredictable and punish or scare the horse?  No, you’ll just quietly ask again that the horse stand still or pick up his foot or whatever, without anger and without taking it personally.”

Let Go of Expectations and Timeframes
“Some of the horses we get in are nearly feral or have very little handling,” says Dr. Patti Klein Manke, veterinarian for the Hooved Animal Humane Society. “To help them start trusting, we feed at very consistent times and use food in a way that connects the human with something positive. Trust is earned eventually, little by little and it can’t be rushed.  ”She adds, “Volunteers might sit in a horse’s pen, quietly, with no expectation that the horse will come up or allow the person to touch him. Putting the horse in charge of the interaction helps to build their trust.”  People who have had horses before may wonder why their abused horse may be taking so much longer to learn something than their previous horses did. “I tell them that there’s just no set time frame. “If we can remember that it’s up to the horse, things go better.” 

Training
“You can’t rely on just a few techniques when working with abused horses.  “You need to analyze, think outside the box and be able to adjust what you’re doing to what the horse needs.”

Safety is very important
“You have to stay safe and your horse has to stay safe; at the end of the day, everyone has to feel a little bit better than they did when they started and feel good about what they worked on together.  If you feel overwhelmed, frightened or out of your comfort zone, seek the help of an effective and compassionate trainer who is experienced in working with troubled horses. It is not worth you being injured trying to help a horse. 

Forego Dominant Training Methods
Although it’s decreasing, we still hear that notion about ‘you’d better be the boss, because if you aren’t your horse will take over.  That’s an attitude of creating submission that I think can certainly be abusive and it’s sad because it’s not necessary. When we give horses a chance to understand what we want of them and we’re clear, they can trust us to be consistent. Then a relationship develops that’s like a dance.  Adds Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara, “I think another source of abuse is this trend nowadays of trainers labeling an animal as dominant.  In the study of animal behavior, dominance is a rank; it’s not a behavior. Dominant animals use dominant and submissive signaling, but often when you label a horse as dominant it’s giving people permission to be more coercive than they should be.”

Do Different Things ... Or Not
It might seem obvious that if a horse has had a bad experience doing a certain thing, such as tying or going into a trailer or wash rack, we probably don’t want to continue doing that activity. However, it’s not that simple the following are a few examples. 

  • If a jumper is terrified of the poles because he’s been punished for hitting them, we may start working the horse on the ground with poles set very far away and using baby steps and lots of praise to help it overcome the flight response. 
  • Or we might take all the tack away that a horse may associate with a bad experience.   
  • For a jumper, maybe we’d remove his bridle and martingale and let him jump in a neck ring.” 
  • If a horse had horrible experiences jumping, then I probably wouldn’t jump him but I may not do a lot of flat work with it either because he might associate that with jumping.  So, I might get him completely away from that environment and see how he does on trails. The tricky thing is that if jumping is all he knows, he might be really frightened out on the trails. You just have to see what the horse needs.

Personally I begin with an evaluation to identify where the horse is at emotionally, mentally and physically.  This will also include the desirable and undesirable traits the horse as! 

Predicting the Future?
Are there any fail-safe ways to figure out a prognosis for a mishandled horse and discern whether he will recover to become a useful member of equine society? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. 

What Are the Expectations?
While a horse may not be able to do what it was originally trained or bred to do, perhaps it can be happy and successful doing something different.   “I think successful rehabilitation depends on the situation,” Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara says. “For example, if you have a horse that’s extremely noise sensitive and he’s in a suburban area with an inexperienced handler, it may not do very well. But if it can be placed in a quiet rural area with an experienced, quiet rider doing primarily trail riding, it probably could be saved.” 

“For me, as long as there’s try, you’ve got hope. “It’s when the horse is shut down to the point it isn’t interested in even trying to work with you that the situation doesn’t look so good.” 

Are You the Right Person for This Horse?
Many of us can only have one or two horses due to time, space or money constraints. If a particular horse isn’t working out, there’s no shame in admitting that.  While this horse may be able to be helped, it may simply be that you’re not the right person to do it. 

“I think it’s good to remember that we are not always the best person for a particular animal,” Maureen Fredrickson-MacNamara says. “We like to think we are, but sometimes another person will have exactly what that horse needs in terms of experience, personality and interests. It’s not personal, it’s just life.” 

Other Options 
Sadly, some horses can’t be aided back into productive members of equine society. They may have such horrific pasts that they will always be unpredictable and untrusting, and perhaps dangerous as a result. Or they may have permanent soundness issues.

“If we’re dealing with physical issues and the horse is unable to be ridden, he may be able to be pasture sound and can be a wonderful companion or pet.   Other options are retirement on acreage, preferably with other horses. However, don’t assume that a horse wants to be turned out and forgotten. Many horses still enjoy positive human interaction, and they want to be valued. Turning them out with no contact can be torture for some horses.

In some cases, horses truly are mentally unstable. If this is the case, and the horse is also dangerous on the ground or with other horses, we must take a hard look at the life we can offer the animal and what sort of life he is likely to have. Sometimes, the most compassionate outcome is euthanasia.

Moving Ahead 
Rehabilitating an abused horse is a long-term project but can be extremely rewarding. While physical issues can be resolved relatively quickly, emotional and behavioral traumas will take time to overcome.  Over the years, I’ve seen horses tht I thought we’d never get through to. They were so shut down and so afraid but often in a week or weeks of working with them there would be an improvement. So much will depend on the amount of time you can spend with that horse and giving him the attention it needs.”

If you can be consistent and trustworthy and say what you mean and mean what you say, your horse has a good chance of recovering and being fine.