By Charlotte Bastiaanse
When our horses suffer from conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is very saddening to see them in such a state. In an article that appeared in HQ109 (order from CoolMags ), we took a look at how horses develop these mental conditions, and what the potential end-result of these ailments can be. In this article we take a look at how you can help your horse alleviate some of the symptoms.
Some horses are more prone to depression than others. Depression is, however, usually the result of pain, discomfort or consistent unhappiness. It is simply that some horses are more sensitive to developing it than others.
First and foremost, it is vital that you ensure that your horse is not in pain. Physical discomfort can and will put a horse in a darker frame of mind, which could lead to depression. If all checks out, then the second option to investigate is his environment. Change in the immediate environment, if it is that is causing the problem, usually alleviates symptoms and can result in a quick and easy ‘cure’. Horses are very simplistic by nature and do not require much to ensure happiness. Ensure that your horse has plenty of turn-out time, access to friends and 24/7 access to grazing or grass.
Finally, look at your horse’s work schedule – is your horse constantly ‘on the job’? Horses need time to be horses, and if all we’re doing is working them, then the chances are good they’re simply mentally drained. Give him a break and take the time to enjoy him outside of the arena, and away from a saddle.
PTSD in horses is not unlike what you might find in humans suffering from the condition. Triggers and mental breakdowns are commonplace for horses who have experienced traumatising events. Horses have excellent memories, which enable them to recall lessons or people from years back, but also painful events.
There are quite a few symptoms associated with PTSD. These include poor immune system functioning, depression, digestion problems (such as colic), sudden mood changes, and unreasonable aggression.
To help a horse with PTSD you need patience more than anything. He can be triggered at any time without warning, and whatever the trigger is, it needs to be identified before anything can be done about it. In an article about PTSD in horses, Kerry Thomas writes, “To therapy the issues, each issue or perceived association has to be addressed. We need the trigger to facilitate transition.” How this is done, she continues, is not unlike how we might train an undamaged horse. Environments need to be created that enable smooth transitions into comfort zones. If the horse reacts negatively to a rake, for example, take the time to ensure a positive connectivity to the object. Desensitising is an excellent place to start, and a good routine (feeding time, work time, play time) is a must for any horse suffering from PTSD. But there are hazards to helping a traumatised horse. “One never knows what will trigger an aggressive reaction in what seems like otherwise gentle, sensible horses,” says Rick Synowski, psychologist and Arabian horse breeder. “These behaviours may subside in time, but one cannot predict whether they will ever go away entirely,” he adds.
Therein lies the problem. Some horses simply can’t be fixed, and systematic, consistent abuse can truly fracture them beyond repair. They either need professional help or simply to be left alone to be horses. A heart might heal in the right circumstances, and where is the best circumstance but in a field with other horses to make him feel safe?
The shutdown horse carries much the same emotional trauma as the PTSD case, but just on a different spectrum. Both lie in the same group with abuse as the likely cause, but one is more of a psychological reaction and the other is more of a physical response. In the case of the shutdown horse, he falls into the former category.
‘No reaction is a good reaction,’ seems to be the motto of the shutdown horse. It is the result of over-desensitisation and repeated schooling to the point that his mind and body have become dull. A reboot of the brain is done in much the same way as we help a PTSD case, but instead of teaching him not to spook, we show him that reaction is not only accepted, but strongly encouraged.
In the same way we teach the horse to find a comfort zone, we need to let the shutdown horse know he doesn’t need to be in that zone 24/7. The consistent badgering on his psyche forces him to make a sort of ‘safe space’ in the confines of his head, where he goes to hide when we push him too hard, or expect him to react differently to how he wants. It is about encouraging him not to stay in that place all the time, but sometimes to step out and interact with the environment around him.
Many of us may have come across this term, especially dressage riders who find their horses dead to the leg or bit. Re-sensitising means using very small cues to ask for something, and encouraging the horse should he react to them. Through this process, you can hope to bring the horse out of the dead zone. For many riders this might seem counter-productive, but for the mental sanity of the horse, it is necessary.
You need to create an environment in which the horse wants to come out. This can include simply spending time with him. Grooming and playing are great ways to get him to respond to you. Any reaction is a good reaction, but consistency is the key.
ArcEquine is a light therapy used with horses to help ease pain and injury. It has shown great success in saving ligaments and other physical problems in horses, and is quite easy to use, with no training required. But Ian Thirkell, managing director and founder, claims it also helps with PTSD and depression. “Within a very short time, probably minutes, of starting [the therapy], [the horse] will become calm. I have seen this many, many times, including when used on stallions.” Thirkell has worked at length with Prof Gordon Turmball, a psychiatrist specialising in trauma. After numerous case studies it does seem that the ArcEquine alleviates certain depressive symptoms, and may even help horses with PTSD.
Giving a horse a massage not only is excellent for his mental and physical health, but also builds a bond between rider and horse. Horses can easily pull muscles when being ridden; good massages help loosen the muscles and prevent injury. They also relax the horse, breaking down any unwanted tension and helping him to exist in a happier mental state.
The heart is the centre of the horse; by showing patience and understanding he can be pulled back from that dark place he went to hide.