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Displaced Behaviours and Trauma In Horses:
How A More Natural Lifestyle Can Help To Reduce Stress. 

I find great pleasure in assisting owners in rekindling the relationship between them and their equine companions by helping people to comprehend their horse's needs from the horse's perspective.

I often receive the humorous title of a marriage guidance counsellor between horse and human as I aim to help both parties understand each other and reach a common ground to restore harmony.

It's a fantastic job, and I feel very blessed to be able to do this as a living.
 

However, the sad part of this is that I witness many "DISPLACED BEHAVIOURS" from the horses themselves.

Many horses develop coping strategies to survive in non-species appropriate situations in the human world. Unfortunately, these behaviours can be unpleasant and extreme, especially in unwanted rescue horses I have worked with.
 

Just as destructive behaviours can develop in the human psyche, such as self-harm, body dysmorphia, anorexia, and obsessive compulsions, the horses I work with can also display equally damaging conditions. Some of these issues may not be recognized as problems initially, as they start off subtly and gradually evolve into more significant concerns.
 

For instance, when a horse frequently stops to itch their face on their legs while being ridden, this may begin as a genuine itch but can quickly turn into a behavioural stress response. This is often associated with the bit or the act of being ridden, which the horse may have come to associate with trauma. Whether or not the bit is causing pain is not the issue, as the horse's perception of the situation matters. The body responds to the perception of fear rather than the logic of it. Therefore, the horse has become accustomed to receiving a break or not being overly controlled by the rider when they stop for an itch.

head shaking leg
WIND SUCKING
Horse bucks inot the canter
shut down horse

This behaviour is quickly associated with rest and reward, which is why the horse continues to do it. Unfortunately, it has become a significant problem preventing the rider from enjoying their ride.

Another situation is the horse who bucks into the canter, who has habitualized his response to object to being asked for a faster gait, which may have started through an ill-fitting saddle, or perhaps from poor positioning for his rider, or due to body soreness from being grass affected that went unaddressed, but this has now become his response to all cantering ....and until his environment improves, and his rider changes their approach to this, we rarely see any improvements ....and this is how horses turn into bucking horses.

I guess it’s like the old saying, “if you want what you have always got, do what you’ve always done”.

But if you want something different, do something out of the ordinary but with equine understanding at the forefront of your plan.

This, unfortunately, applies to so many horses, including to the poor kick-along pony who has become so dull to the kids walloping him in the gut to keep him going that he has learned to climb inside his own brain to escape the traumas of the outside world and has become conditioned to being like he’s dead on the outside .....he is still crying out for help through the very nature of displaying that behaviour, but it is sadly being ignored by his humans so he learns to live that way, which is just heart-wrenching and incredibly tragic to see.

The same goes for the robotic obedient mount who has no opinions or spark in his eyes, as he is just going through the motions because he has associated that there is no point in having an opinion as it's always ignored by his human/s anyway, and is just expected to be compliant. That’s no life for a horse.

We also see this in the high-headed horse who is showing a fear response in association with being worried about what is going to happen to him.....this often happens through a lack of beneficial leadership or bullying and him being forced to do what the owners want without anyone ever asking for his opinion. Or waiting to see if he really likes doing that exercise or jumping, trekking etc..... as no matter the human agenda makes him do it. Whether he likes it or not.

Or the horse with separation anxiety from her herd, forced to go further away from them by misunderstood owners who think teaching her a lesson will help her overcome this. It won’t! As this is not the right approach to stress her out to try to have a braver or happier horse, 9 out of 10 riders do this to try to correct separation anxiety in equines.

 

And the list goes in.....

All these negative behaviours in horses, and many more, start subtly as horses the world over try to quietly cry out for help to these unhorselike stresses and traumas that are happening in their lives .....it’s not that they are being purposefully difficult.... they are just trying to survive in our alien world that they don’t understand.

Tragically, so much trauma and stress go by unnoticed by these horses' carers, so the horse becomes more stressed because they can't get the human to listen or them to stop the undesired stimuli or respond appropriately to their needs or provide a more species-appropriate lifestyle, and it's then that these behaviours often increase into more worrying and dangerous forms of showing stress that is when I'm called in to help, or the horse is donated to our centre as being unwanted as he won’t do what the human wants.

 

These behaviours include:

tongue sucking,

kicking,

lip popping,

purposeful asphyxiation

hypervigilance and overtly fearful,

head shaking and flicking

nervous ticks and twitching,

rearing,

bucking,

shying and spooking,

resistance,

bolting,

biting,

won’t float

won’t lead

won’t pick up feet

obsessive scratching,

being shut down and catatonia,

crab walking,

aggression,

and more.

Most of these responses are happening through stress for one reason or another, and even boredom, especially for those who are stabled and/or live alone in solitary without any other animals of their own kind.

It completely breaks my heart to see this, and I'm often asked on how to help.....

The first thing I ask of people regarding helping horses with traumas associated with these types of stress-associated behaviours is to be understanding of the horse's needs.

So, we first need to try to help the horse by supplying a correct diet for him to eliminate nutritional distress upon his digestive system and body, which means providing natural, unprocessed, nutrient-enriched slow-burn feeds, including 24/7 access to low-sugar hay fed in a slow feed hay net, to replicate his natural grazing and protect from grass affected, which will all serve to alleviate hormonal changes by reducing stress as well as levels of insulin spikes and troughs, as any food that hypes the horse up will only add to make these conditions much worse, as will also going without food for more than a few minutes as it causes agitated stress, (including ulcers) as horses need to feel that they can eat little and often all the time as is the very nature of their digestive system-please see our recommended diet page for more on this.

The second thing we can do is let the horse be a horse......which means to let him live in a herd, even if only in a herd of two, outside in the open air, in an environment that allows him freedom and movement as he needs to be able to have the option to run for his own mental well being, as is suited to his natural behaviour as a herd animal....so I would seriously advise against using closed in stables or any solitary lifestyles.

Care is needed that you shouldn’t let him graze on green farming grasses on a 24/7 basis either, so we recommend track grazing or break feeding as a solution for this to provide space and freedom without breaking the grass banks and making your horse ill or risking laminitis from eating these unsuitable farming grasses.

For a happy and healthy horse, their metabolism also needs to be taken into consideration. You see, sugary grasses are not what horses were designed to eat, nor are clipping them either or over rugging, both of which alter their natural ability to thermal regulate their own body temperature, which changes how fast they metabolise calories, which affects their hormones, and stress levels and behaviours.

Most people don’t associate any of these types of innocent actions with adding to stress and trauma for horses, yet I see it all the time. And when these issues are amended, the horse's behaviours in the vast majority of cases improve.

Once your horse is happy in his environment, eating a diet his body was designed to eat instead of all these processed feeds, having the safety of being in a herd, albeit if only with another horse, with a mutually understanding partnership with his carer, then he will be of an improved mindset to address these traumas through behavioural re-conditioning, and often huge improvements take place when we can offer horses a more natural lifestyle closer to that he has evolved to live like.

The hardest thing is to stop listening to all those old-fashioned dominations and corporal punishment styles of horsekeeping, which never work to help foster a relationship with the horse.

A saying that works for me when I occasionally worry about peer pressure from others is that the only judge of me with my horse IS MY HORSE!

 

And as long as they are happy, then I’m happy.

This article was written to help horses have a voice, and I hope it will help people to understand life from the horse's point of view.

Casper is one of our sancturary rescue horses
cleo and missy hooning
living in a herd is good for the horses wellbeing
otto liberty
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