Do horses suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder)?
YES, THEY DO!
I’ve seen it hundreds of times. People often chalk up misbehavior as “naughty, bad, disrespectful, or stupid.” Chronic behaviors like cribbing, bucking, bolting, freezing, swaying, sudden reactions from seemingly nothing, chasing, ear pinning, tongue or mouth displacement, grinding teeth, and many more can be signs of something going on deep inside the horse. I always give the horse the benefit of the doubt when someone tells me he’s being “a bugger, an ass, a jerk, a bitch” because the horse cannot speak for herself in our world. More often than not, when you get a clearer picture of the history each horse has experienced you start to see why they react the way they do.
Sometimes you don’t know the whole history. For example. You don’t remember when your horse was mistreated but suddenly he’s become ear shy. You can’t think of any moment from birth until now that he’s had a confusing or stressful experience yet, here he is… showing all the signs of PTSD. The truth is, it takes very little for a horse to develop PTSD like behaviors. They simply can’t wrap their minds around our human experiences very easily.
The strange thing, is that horses can get PTSD much easier than we can, simply because we have the cognitive skills to manage heightened emotional states. We can figuratively wrap our mind around more painful or scary experiences. But anyone who has actually suffered from PTSD will tell you. Logic isn’t the issue. Sounds, sights, smells, they can all trigger a traumatic moment in your memory and imagination. The same thing is happening for horses.
All of the above doesn’t mean that your horse suffers from PTSD. Many behaviors are minor in nature and not recurring. Horses buck, bolt, bite, strike, and rear at play. Why wouldn’t they attempt to do those things with a rider on their back from time to time. It makes sense they would do those things. In other words, “a horse is a horse of course of course”.
Signs of PTSD are more obvious when a horse starts doing abnormal things related to certain stimulus. Things that aren’t typical. Things that don’t make sense to us. Things like cribbing in a stall. Things like grinding teeth with a bridle on. Things like sudden bolting or twisting or bucking, seemingly out of the blue but happening more and more often. Things like freezing, sweating in odd places or prematurely. Things that go beyond the typical playful behaviors a horse would exhibit. All these things can be signs of PTSD.
What can be done for horses that suffer from PTSD?
In my book, Leadership and Horses I talk about the Four “B” s of Leadership.
Basic to advanced skill development
In the book, each piece is detailed out for better understanding and application, but for the sake of clarity and brevity. I want to give you the value of just one piece today. “Bravery”
Specifically, a certain type of bravery call “flash training”
All horses, but especially horses suffering from PTSD need flash training. What is flash training?
It’s a simple strategy that trains and rewards calmness and relaxation immediately after a visual, auditory, or tactile sensation flashes past the horse.
Basically, horses react to sudden sensations. They need to learn to relax with sudden sensations.
At my clinics, I often tell a short story then pose a simple question. Here it is:
Years ago, I was leading my horse across my neighbor’s lawn. My neighbor saw me through the window and wanted to say hi before I got too far away. She ran to the door and opened the door to call my name. In that instant, my horse jumped up, sideways, and down, landing squarely on my foot and breaking several bones.
Now I pose the question… Is my horse afraid of doors? Or is it the sudden “flash” of the door that created the reaction?
You guessed it. My horse, like all horses, reacts to sudden sensation, the only cure then becomes more exposure to sudden things (many you can simulate on your own if you have a strong imagination) and then training the horse to hold still and settle. Each time he settles, he’s must be rewarded with rubbing, scratching or treats.
One of my favorite techniques is to flash my hand at the horse’s eyeball. From a distance, it looks like I’m going to smack him in the eye, but come a little closer and you’ll see my hand slow down right at the last second and kindly rub his eye. After a few repetitions, he becomes quiet and calm. He begins to trust the experience. He begins to see the flash and “be” ok about it, even rewarded, because each time he gets a kind petting experience from the same hand that looked evil before.
Do you see how it works now? Flash training for certain horses can be a miracle cure. It won’t all get fixed overnight of course, and there are more pieces to the puzzle. For instance, outlined in my nine leadership principles you’ll see how horse owners must ensure the horse has what he needs to survive and thrive in our world. Thriving requires different skills sets and different thinking on our part as owners.
In summary, yes, horses do suffer from PTSD. Is it curable. Yes, just about as curable as it is for us humans. Is it easy? Depends on the situation of course. Will Leadership and Horses help you understand your horse better? Yes. Pick it up. Give you horse the gift of become the best leader you can be for him or for her.
Don Jessop – the breakthrough guy