It’s pretty frequent that I teach someone who says their horse was rescued or abused. These terms are sort of loose- what does abuse in the horse world actually mean? We can all agree that beating a horse is abusive, but we can’t all agree on whether controlling a horse through inflicting pain, such as using a stud chain, is abusive. Some might look at a herd of horses out in the elements, covered in dirt and grazing as needing rescue or better care, and I tend to think of horses trapped in stalls day in and day out as needing rescuing.
The tricky part about animal rights advocating is we tend to anthropomorphize the horse. The “if you’re cold, they’re cold” mentality is a great example. Horses’ needs are very different from ours. Based on evidence and not tradition, habit or personal preference, we know that horses need forage, movement, and a herd. They need to feel secure, they need good dental and hoof care, and they need protection from parasites and other dangers to their health.
It’s tempting when we rescue a horse to think we’re doing right by them by giving them a cushy stall, expensive feed, a nice blanket; all the things we might want. But they are not us, and their needs are different.
The other danger is the stories we tell tend to trap them into a way of being. “He was abused”, “he doesn’t like men,” we use these stories to explain their behavior, but it locks them into behaviors and sometimes they aren’t even accurate stories. Sometimes a horse’s extreme fear is not caused by abuse but by lack of understanding, lack of exposure to novel situations, or the lack of a tool set to deal with the situation.
Whether they were abused or not, the kindest thing you can do with your horse is give them the tools to deal with life. If they have trauma, of course there are some differences in how you’d approach certain topics. The traumatized horse may need you to be flexible, but don’t avoid helping them forever because they are scared.
My four personal horses all have not so great pasts, but each one of them is functional and happy. There are some funny quirks here and there but for the most part, they are just regular horses. They live in a herd, they have different jobs depending on their ability, and they are happy. Boxing them into the “traumatized horse” category might have prevented them from ever moving on.