How Can We Help Horses to Get Over Traumatic Experiences?

A question that I have asked myself lately. Since my own horse is still recovering from surgery, my friend has kindly allowed me to work with her horse, Weto, a beautiful half-Frisian.

Weto April 2014

I know Weto for more than a year. He is very kind, lets children ride on him, and was trained to a medium dressage level by his previous owner. Unfortunately, they used draw reigns for the intense, sometimes two hour daily training. Because of Weto I’m beginning to really understand the long-term damage that draw reigns can cause.

Why I’m not a fan of draw reigns

If you use just a little bit stronger reign aids, his head immediately pops behind the vertical and stays there. He is very easily intimidated that way. Now, for the rider this might feel like he is obedient and respects your hand. However, this has nothing to do with real collection as he avoids contact to the bit. His hint legs are not engaged and his back is not arched and working as it should. During a ride on him about three months ago, I noticed how his head felt like it wasn’t attached to his body at all, a bit like made of rubber and very easy to over-bend. That tells me a lot about the training he must have gone through. Although he looks pretty that way and you could certainly impress a judge, he still has lots of issues with his balance, falls on the inner shoulder a lot and has too much weight on his forhand. Things have already improved as he is not ridden with any restriction to his head now and can carry it the way he wants. He still has issues with his canter, though. I’ve decided that I want to help him solve the problem on the lunge rather than having to deal with the extra weight on his back, too.

Finding balance

For about two weeks I’ve worked on his walk and trot on the lunge, taking care that he has the right stellning and bending and steps under with his inner hint foot. We practiced transitions from halt to walk, from walk to trot, from trot to halt. I use only a cavesson for lunging, so he slowly found a good position for his head that helps him to balance while going on a circle. If we restrict anhorse’s head by fixing it with some straps, we take away his ability to find his own balance! Things were going very well, he started to move more lightly and with a good self-carriage, and I thought it was time we worked on the canter.

Getting emotional

Three days ago, I started the lunging session as usual and then casually asked for a canter. He sped up in the trot and broke into a fast gallop. With such an increased speed he had to fight against the centrifugal power a lot, which made him lose his balance even more. His reaction was running and bucking, trying to break out of the circle. I brought him to a trot, calmed him down a bit and tried one more time, taking care to have him in a nice balanced trot before asking for the canter. This time, he sped up again, then kicked out at me with both hintlegs. Now, if I really don’t like something, it’s biting and kicking, so my instinctive reaction was to hit my short driving whip on the ground. Then all hell broke loose. He started racing around me, then breaking out of the circle, pulling me with him with all the strength he could bring up. If a 650 kilo animal really wants to go somewhere, you don’t stand a chance. If I would lunge with the line attached to a bit he couldn’t have done it, he would have hurt himself. If you take away the equipent, only the truth remains. My only thought (besides “holy sh…”) was that I really don’t want to let go of the lunge now. I was afraid that I might cause a real problem if I do, teaching him that that’s the way to get out of it. So I kept holding on, running as fast as I could.

I managed to calm him down to a trot again, but he was clearly panicking. He trotted around me like a young stallion, throwing his legs, snorting, eyes wide. It came to me that he probably expected punishment! I spoke to him in a soft voice, although my right foot hurt a little (must have twisted it while running) and my left thumb was twice its usual size (probably from getting squeezed when holding on to that line). He settled down after a few minutes, which gave me time to sort my lunge line and put the whip on the ground. Something told me that he was afraid of the whip.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Put him back to the stable? With a memory like that? I decided to give it some more try, without whip and without pressure. I gave the aid to canter towards the closed side of the arena so the first burst of energy would be contained by the wall of the arena and he couldn’t drag me around again. It worked. He still sped up a lot but kept going around me on the circle. But it was obvious that he has serious issues with his balance. I asked only for one round of canter at a time and stopped after three successful attempts on each side. He seemed a lot more relaxed then.

Learned helplessness

On the way home, I called his owner to tell her what had happened. She told me a bit about how they used to lunge Weto, wrapped like a Christmas package, and that they sold him because he had suddenly decided that he had enough of dressage training.

I’ve noticed for some time that Weto is hard to read. He doesn’t show a lot of emotions. When we force horses into submission, they learn that there is no way out, that they are not being heard. They become very quiet and apparently ‘respectful’ and good to work with, meaning they just do what we tell them, when in fact they are in a state of learned helplessness. Although Weto wasn’t trained hard anymore, he was still in that state. My best guess is that the other day he just exploded with all the emotions he had kept inside. And it also got clear to me that he must have had some traumatic experiences with lunging and especially the use of the whip. Horses have a very good memory after all and the key to their present behaviour might be in their past.

Trying to help him find a solution

I thought that I really want to help him to get over this issue. Yesterday, me and his owner drove out to the stable to have another go at it. This time I focused more on his subtle body language and found that he already showed some slight signs of stress when we started trot work. Once I started asking for canter, the signs became even clearer. There was a lot of improvement to our previous session though, he started the canter much more calmly and also didn’t buck or break out of the circle. For each attempt, he got lots of praise and a piece of carrot. We stopped after two nice rounds of canter on each side.

Hopefully I can show him that lunging is nothing uncomfortable or frightening. That I will not punish him if he shows some emotions. It is interesting, however, that he still starts the canter with his head in a position as if fixed by short side reigns, nose way behind the vertical. Once he has learned that he can keep his head where ever he wants, I guess that his balance issues will improve, too.  The huge progress from one session to the next shows me that sometimes we need to provide the circumstances so that horses can figure something out on their own. Anyhow, I was very proud of him yesterday.

Did your horses have any traumatic experiences? How did you work on the issue? I’m really interested and hope you tell me in the comments!

This is Weto in November 2013. Compare his facial expression to the photo above (taken in April 2014) and see how much he has changed.

Weto November 2013


6 Comments on “How Can We Help Horses to Get Over Traumatic Experiences?

  1. Hey, just a thought here. As a farrier, and draft-cross owner, I’ve noticed many horses that actually need shoes on their hind end — set back for greater breakover — in order to allow their hind end to work well at the canter. My own homebred Shire-cross mare had this problem. She couldn’t sustain her canter. Finally, I realized that she had a mechanical problem, applied a set of front Natural Balance shoes on her hind end, setting breakover substantially back. That very afternoon, we went for our first fluid, sustained canter of our lives! Simply amazing!

    • mhm…now you’re making me think…
      I’ll definitively mention this to the owner and our farrier! He is barefoot at the moment.
      Thanks very much for that!

  2. I haven’t worked with a traumatized horse yet but I find your approach very reasonable and smart: try again when something goes wrong to not leave the horse at that dark place, retreat and reward a lot, start with little pressure. And I think that the horse’s rapid improvement shows that you are on the right track. Still, it makes me sick to think of what he must have been trough before he came to your place. Some people just have no empathy or common sense to do that to a horse.

    • I haven’t worked with traumatised horses before, either, just with my own little elephant 😉 (I’ve always corrected the sometimes dangerous behaviour of the many school horses and ‘foster horses’ that I rode, but somehow I think that doesn’t count…). So I’m basically learning as I go. For now, things are working out with Weto. I’m doing lots of lateral movements when I ride him, and when I ask him to canter on the lunge I release him after a nice start without bucking and running and maybe one round of canter. There was no trying to run away anymore (for now). I don’t use a whip anymore for lunging, seems to help him relax.
      Thanks very much for your comment!

      • You are very welcome. I enjoy reading your blog a lot. And yes, foster horses do count 🙂

  3. Pingback: Improving Canter | Bee and the Horse

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