Riding With Trauma

I had a lesson recently with a wonderful, sweet woman who began the lesson with an apology: “I’m sorry I don’t always learn well, I have some trauma I’m dealing with.”

This really struck me, especially for the topic we were discussing: horses in various stages and kinds of physical and mental trauma. We discussed a situation where she had worked with a horse who had behavioral issues, and she felt he was doing much better. Then, during a ride, he came apart and launched her, causing her great injury.

This is how trauma works: sometimes you are ok, sometimes you aren’t. You don’t always know what will set off flashbacks and memories, or trigger responses out of your control. Did she miss an important element in training with this horse? Maybe, I have no idea since I’m not her, I’m not the horse, and I wasn’t there. But likely, it was a traumatized horse and somehow a trigger was flipped- maybe she could have done something differently, maybe not.

Trauma, unfortunately, is incredibly common in humans. The statistics are incredibly icky: physical and sexual abuse in children are incredibly common (25 out of 1000 children are physically abused, and 1 out of 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys are sexually abused). Physical and sexual abuse in adults are very common. Illness, injury, abusive relationships, accidents, death, loss, military service and combat, you name it. You most likely know someone who has trauma or PTSD, if you don’t have it yourself.

How can trauma benefit our riding? Well- for starters, the obvious: empathy. Horses behavior is often a cry for help- A signal that things are not ok. Trauma can be anything a horse didn’t understand: a first saddling that went poorly, pulling back and breaking a tie, losing a rider as a greenie, a long stay at the vet hospital, you name it. We can’t downplay these events just because we understand them- to the horse, they were traumatic.

A person with trauma often knows how it feels to be brushed off, told “it wasn’t that bad,” “just live in the moment,” “they didn’t have bad intentions,” “be glad it wasn’t worse,” and many other dismissive and unhelpful statements. Similarly, people make comments like this with horses: “nobody has hit him in years!” “He didn’t freak out 9 times and on the 10th just lost it for no reason,” “he has a good life now after we rescued him, I don’t know why he’s afraid.”

If you’ve had trauma, you know nice treatment doesn’t erase the event that created the trauma, and that sometimes you might be ok and others not.

You know how unhelpful it can be to be dismissed, and how easy it might be to stuff it down and no longer show how you feel to keep others comfortable. You know how easy it might be for an explosively fearful animal to go internal, when they aren’t allowed to show fear behavior.

Your trauma can make you a better rider, trainer, and a better human. Because if you have trauma, you know what horses everywhere go through every day.

5 thoughts on “Riding With Trauma

  1. Good one.
    Sometimes I miss the self medicating, blame everything on the hangover, happy in my ignorance days.
    Horses like me better though.

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  2. You are spot on, Amy! Trauma is a tricky thing because it’s our body, not our calm thinking, that reacts faster than a snakebite. I work as an equine-assisted psychotherapist specialising in trauma and it’s normal to see at least one of the horses act on something before the client has even found words for what just popped up in their head, heart or body. Great that you’re mentioning this issue.

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  3. I love this perspective. It was something I had to live through and, while it’s been rough at times I learned so much: about myself, my horse but mostly about myself.

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