Do you have horse PTSD?

If you’ve been around horses long enough, you have your share of horse war stories.

Niki and Ellie out for a gallop

Niki and Ellie out for a gallop

  • The time you were out for a nice Spring canter, enjoying the day, when and SOMETHING rattled in the bushes and in the twinkling of an eye, there was no horse underneath you and the ground came up hard.
  • The time you were jumping and the horse ducked out at the last minute but you kept going straight…into the fence.
  • The time you were leading an excited horse and it reared up and almost got you with its front legs – or maybe it did get you.
  • The time you were riding in a crowded arena and another horse came close to your horse, who panicked, whirled and bolted.
  • The time you don’t even know why, but suddenly your horse did a 180 and he went East, and you went West.

Probably nothing quite so dramatic as this picture, though. We’ll save these wreaks for the professionals:

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We all have long lists of minor and major things that happen with horses. If you’ve ridden for long, you’ve fallen many times and been kicked, stepped on, bitten. Yet we still love them, of course, because usually they don’t mean to hurt us but are reacting out of fear.

Depending on personality and the events surrounding the event(s), we may have some degree of mental trauma to go with the physical trauma. The body wounds heal for most of us – although some of us have lifelong horse derived aches and pains – but what happens inside?

I realized recently that I had more interior wounds than I had realized.

My horse Finn had enjoyed several days off and it was crisp and chilly. He is body clipped and was feeling good and remembering what it had been to be a stallion (before they gelded him four years ago, that is). I mounted and entered the jump arena on my way to the dressage court, which is on the other side. As I crossed the ring, a girl came jumping down the line toward me but began falling off midway through an in and out. I watched with consternation as she held onto the horse’s neck and slid sideways as the horse jumped the second part of the in and out, and I thought, “that horse is going to bolt right towards us as she falls at our feet,” because that was the trajectory. I shortened my reins and sat deep. As the girl fell and the horse bolted, Finn spun a little and leaped…and then just stood. That was it. No bolt, no dramatics, and we walked on our way (the girl was fine, by the way, and the horse didn’t go far).

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Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

I patted and thanked Finn, and shook my head, thinking how differently this could have gone. Then I noticed my heart was pounding and I started crying. It was an uncontrollable autonomic response. Why? My horse had been perfect and nothing happened – but it was a near miss, like being almost hit by a truck while riding a bicycle. Things could have gone so differently for me. We were just feet from the open gate of the arena and the very hard road, and I have a very fast, athletic pony. If he had spun and bolted, maybe I would have stayed with him, and maybe not. Maybe Iwould have fallen in the ring, or worse, on the road. Thinking about the maybes is of course foolish – and yes, when I’m out on the trail sometimes I think, “if my horse spooks right now, I could be impaled on that fence post!” – silly, really, and a waste of time. I was struck by the strength of my emotional reaction to this non-event, and I realized I’m still carrying all the other times I actually have been terrified or hurt by horses. Of course my horses spook occasionally and normally I’m o.k. with it, but for some reason, this particular event triggered my memories. It made me realize the trauma runs deep.

If you or I have some minor or major emotional trauma around riding, how do we go forward? We want to keep riding. Of course it depends on how fresh and how severe the trauma is. But here are a few general principles that have helped me keep riding every day:

  • Choose a horse who will try to take care of you (remember sometimes sometimes even the best will just be horses). Life is too short to ride a horse who does not feel trustworthy. Find a horse who does not get tense if you do.
  • Be sensible about which horse activities you pursue. Push your boundaries just outside your comfort zone but not to the terror zone. If jumping scares you but you long to jump, perhaps start with some trot poles and move on to 1′ jumps, etc. Take a calm buddy to accompany you on the trail, and so on.
  • Find a safe instructor and community which are supportive. Hanging out with wild and crazy riders who mock your caution is not going to help; neither will hanging out with people who are all afraid. Find a group who encourages each other to do their best but understands that we all have limitations emotionally as well as physically. Show each other compassion and grace, but encourage each other to grow at the rate each can go.
  • Be honest with yourself and your instructor about your fears and limitations. You want to be pushed some, but not into the panic zone. Help your instructor know how far is enough.

If any of this describes you or a friend, you might want to learn more about symptoms, causes, and treatments. Here is an excellent article: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

Go on the trail with a safe buddy on a horse that feels trustworthy.

Go on the trail with a safe buddy on a horse that feels trustworthy.

2 thoughts on “Do you have horse PTSD?

  1. Apparently, I’m so traumatized and frozen, I’ve forgotten ALL about every previous incident and find myself caught by surprise each and every time. Just today, long reins, in the warm up, lulled into thinking all is well. Then, Kabaaam! Wacko spook across the diagonal! For no reason. Nothing makes you wake up as much as riding with 15 ft loose reins to haul in… Or at least that’s what it felt like.
    Pouting, and aching in my spine tonight.

    Like

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