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Bringing A Horse Back From Trauma

Gandalf early on
Gandalf on pedestal

The big grey shown in these photos was my horse, called Gandalf.

Gandalf was a breeding stallion until I got him at 13 years old. Throughout his life, he had suffered terrible cruelty at the hands of brutes before being rescued. This poor animal had endured unspeakable tortures and had been regularly beaten, as well as purposely starved, and neglected as forms of sick punishments dished out by a deranged and angry owner, who, in my opinion, should have been given the electric chair for what they did to this horse. They should not have been allowed within a mile of any animal.

 

It was safe to say that this big, proud boy hated people when I got him back in the early 2000s, and who could blame him?

He was an emaciated skeleton with a long list of medical issues when I rescued him, and even in that sorry and weakened state, he only knew aggression through fear. Gandalf was an exceptionally big horse, being a stallion Boulonnais draft breed, and had used his size to defend himself against the horrific tortures bestowed upon him, which had evolved through the years from small defensive behaviours into full-blown attacks upon people, which scared even the most experienced of horse men and women at the time, including me.

I discovered that he had been tied into a tight bend with a hard rope for months on end from his tail to his halter and left to live like that to try to "teach him some respect and manners" and because he used to fight back he was hit in the face with a pickaxe handle that left his eye on his cheek....and partially blinded him.....amongst other unspeakable tortures that still make me weep to think on them.

I knew from the moment I saw him that he was too much horse for me but that I had to try to help him and, at the very least, get him away from these people, so I threw money at the owners so I could rescue him and take him home with me.

Initially, he was so weak and uninterested and didn’t want a bar of me, so I figured there was no point in pushing my concern onto a horse who didn’t want it. So I tried to give him plenty of space and let him come to me when he was ready, which didn’t happen - well, not for a while anyway.

In my ignorance at the time, I thought it might help to reduce his aggression to have him gelded,, but I now know, with trauma horses, that hormones don’t make any difference when trauma has caused such destruction to the horse's mind, so it didn’t improve anything.

But despite these dead ends, I wouldn’t give up on him. When he was fitter and healthier, I did the rounds with him, taking him to various clinics, workshops and lessons etc....., as I was looking for someone to help me with him. Still, unfortunately, most trainers were often too scared of him to be able to help me, with some even asking me to leave the clinic due to his destructive and aggressive behaviour. Sadly, most of them told me to shoot him, including my vet, farriers etc...from back then. And despite parting with lots of my hard-earned cash and all the emotional investment, none of these people helped me to help Gandalf.

I know now that training would not help this horse get past this, as his past ordeals were the human equivalent of being tortured in a nazi concentration camp.

It was only when he developed an abscess and handed his hoof to me to show me that where I saw the first spark of trust ignite between us and that although he didn’t like me, he was showing me that he trusted me the most.

Gandalf and my Daughter
Gandalf and my husband and daughter
Gandalf looking at me
Myself and Gandalf

Gandalf was showing me the way and that he needed me to understand his pain and trauma rather than to try to “train him” out of these behaviours.

Once I got that, the lessons finally started to flood in from the big fella himself, where he taught me I had a long way to go to help him get past his memories of pain and suffering ....but that he was trying to trust me, and that he wanted me to be the one to do everything with, and for him, to help him overcome all that had happened to him.

Despite all the chaos, I had vowed to save him, and for every person who told me to put him down, I used it to fuel my determination. I studied harder and learned more about horse behaviour, diet, social interactions, operant conditioning and grass, toxins, mycology, and so on it went .....all from the horse's point of view.

It was with kindness and understanding of Gandalf's equine psychology, working with those instincts and not against them, that worked for him to recover from his traumas fully. He became my most trusted and dearest friend, whom I trusted with my life, and my little girls until he sadly passed away in 2013.

It was a scary and wondrous journey to bring this hidden soul back from the brink, but one I will treasure for the rest of my life.

To this day, even after helping thousands of horses, Gandalf is THEE most challenging case I have ever had to date.....and occasionally, when I feel myself getting complacent with a horse, the memories of the way he used to be at the start with all that bite, kick, strike reminds me that horses need us to help them in a language that they understand - which is for us to learn to speak horse, whilst providing them with safety, herd, comfort, and species appropriation to their equine needs.

So, for any of you out there who have a horse with challenging behaviours, please don't give up on them.....I bid that you don't try to ride them either of course, until they have had the chance to heal and bond with you....and this is done through providing lots of love, patience, and understanding along with the right diet and herd life plus stimulus, rather than trying to force them into being compliant.

Since that time, we have helped to rehabilitate hundreds of challenging horses through our centre, some of which have included some extremely dangerous horses, all to fantastic success with an approach of kindness, which I hope will give you hope and inspiration to see the light at the end of the tunnel if you are going through this now.

However, the hard part is to stop listening to all the others.....with all their hair-brained ideas .....such as using bigger bits, and taking your horse away from his paddock friends, or tying his head down, and the use of general force or "respect" exercises etc....all of which are designed on how to MAKE your horse comply, as that is not what is required to help these horses....we need to be kind and start listening to your horse and meeting his needs from his point of view rather than our human side, which puts them in stables, suffocates them with thick rugs, adds metal shoes to their feet that restricts circulation and gives them numb legs, puts metal in their mouths so we can threaten them with pain if they don't comply, and so on....which is all for our selfish human needs, and none of which is good for the horse, well not from the horse's side of things anyway.

 

Gandalf, and all the other horses I have met along the way, have taught me to shout out loud to be the voice of the horse, and every day I thank them for sharing their wisdom with me

 

Check out the before and after shots of my beautiful boy-who, who I will treasure in my heart forever.

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