Previously, I talked about some things to consider before getting a horse — but what if your horse has been abused? The sad truth is that horses get abused just as dogs and cats do.
Abuse can take 2 forms: passive or aggressive. Passive neglect is when a horse is mistreated because of lack of food, shelter, water or care. Aggressive abuse is when a horse is beaten, whipped, forced to bear unendurable loads or physically harmed in some other way.
Whether by incompetence, ignorance or just plain meanness, the end result is still abuse. It takes special handling to bring a scared horse back from the brink.
Background Information About the Horse
Let’s say you’ve decided you would like to adopt a horse from your local ASPCA or similar organization. It’s important that you ask thorough questions about the background of your horse:
- Was he abused?
- Did she suffer neglect that may merit a special diet or needs?
- What spooks him?
- Why is he up for adoption?
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg in determining if you are the right match for your chosen horse. Rescuing any animal is a wonderful and humane thing to do, but only if you are going to be able to provide the life that he or she needs. Keep in mind that horses are a lot of work — high-maintenance, you might say — and an abused horse is even more so.
Special Needs and Considerations
Consider the extra care your abused horse will need to fully recover.
First, let’s take a look at physical needs, things such as special diets, exercise requirements (or lack thereof) and medication. Many abused horses (just like people) will suffer from various deficiencies in their overall health and may need medication for some time to restore good health. It is critical that you talk with your veterinarian when determining what your horse will need.
For example, if a horse needs to be dewormed, you will require medication for that. But depending on the severity of the infestation, you may need to take it in stages — and your veterinarian will be able to tell you exactly what to do (or will do it for you, should you need). Or let’s say your horse is physically weak from starvation; he may need to take exercise slowly and build back up to full strength.
Considerations of that nature should be fully explored with your veterinarian. It’s a great idea to make a complete list of questions and thoughts and bring that along with you. I have no doubt you’ll think of more, but this will give you a good starting point.
Mental and Emotional Toll
A more long-term consideration is that of your horse’s mental health. Horse intelligence is hotly debated, but there seems little doubt that horses do possess the smarts to learn from experiences — good or bad.
A horse who has been abused may take a long time to learn to trust people again.
The nature of the abuse will weigh heavily in determining the level to which a horse may “bounce back.” Passive abuse such as neglect teaches a horse hardship and misery, but it may be a faster return to trust simply because the horse has not learned to fear his handler.
In aggressive abuse, though, a horse may or may not return to full trust. He has learned that people are not to be trusted, and it will take a good deal of time, patience and care to teach your horse that not all people are jerks.
Patience Is Key
Although I advocate never aggressively training or approaching any animal, it’s important that you do not lose your patience and start shouting or aggressively trying to control an abused horse. Horses are smart enough to notice triggering repeating behaviors, and he is going to try to either run or fight back.
Keep in mind that horses, even weak ones, are capable of doing great damage when they’re roused. If you feel yourself losing your patience, simply return your horse to his area (stall, paddock, field, etc.) and walk away to try again later.
Patience is the key factor that’s going to see you and your horse through the initial days of recovery. You’ll have days when you’re tired or in a hurry and not prepared for setbacks or skittish antics. It will be up to you to overcome the urge to hurry through feeding, grooming, training or quality time spent with your horse.
You’ll get aggravated and want to rip your hair out when it seems that no matter what you do, he just won’t respond to you. All I can advise here is time.
Just as with any animal that has been abused, those lessons were hard learned, and they’re going to be even harder to unlearn. In time, your patience will be rewarded and your horse will come to know, trust and love you for rescuing him from a very dark place.