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:

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.

Horses or People?

Ellie is everyone's friend

Ellie is everyone’s friend

My haflinger Ellie has many friends at the barn who greet us with, “Hi Ellie!” (big smile and pat for Ellie). Then they realize I’m looking at them waiting, waiting. Hello? Oh. “Hi, Ellie’s owner!” Yeah, Hi.

I know how it is.

Horse first, then person. In fact, I wouldn’t recognize many of the people at the barn without their horse.

If I see them at a store in town, I look at them vaguely, thinking, “I know you from somewhere, but something’s wrong…” Could it be that they don’t have a helmet on? Or a horse attached? Yes, that could be why they are hard to recognize.

When I travel, I’m always looking for horses, too. Been that way from childhood. “Horsie, horsie!” spied grazing in a field from a train window. When I see horses out the window, my mind automatically starts to analyze their probable breed, age, condition, quality, type of fencing, and so on. Just can’t help myself. Embed from Getty Images

On a recent trip to Belgium, we saw some really nice moving horses pulling tourist carriages in Bruges. How many times did my husband have to hear my comments on their conformation and gaits? And then hear me go on about how they worked them too many hours and I was worried about some of them who looked really tired by the end of the day, all that trotting on hard pavement, what was it doing to their joints, they couldn’t last long under such conditions, poor things, and so on.

I notice horses because I am bonded to horses. I look in their eyes as I pass and I feel for them.

Are they tired? Do they like their job? Do they seem well treated? I hope they are. For the record the carriage horses of Bruges were well fed and well cared for, in spite of the long hours and hard pavement. I comforted myself with the thought that at least they had a job and maybe they got to go live in a lovely grassy field some of the time. Who knows?Embed from Getty Images

Interestingly, horses tune into us, too.

There are studies that indicate they are very aware of our emotional state and that some horses may lower their own heart rate in response to our anxiety. In other words, they try to calm us down and exude peace. I’ve received that gift from my horses at times, and I’m grateful.

Ellie, one of the kindest horse friends I've known

Ellie, one of the kindest horse friends I’ve known

Horse shopping 102: What kind of horse should you get?

Before I can answer the question of “what sort of horse should I get?,” I have to ask: who am I and what do I want to do with this horse? What is my ability, experience and budget? What are my goals? What are my limitations? What kind of horse can I handle?

Horses vary in size, age, temperament, ability, price, talent, training, experience, show record, looks, gender, and more. Most of them are lovely, and while I might admire them greatly for someone else, they may not be right for me. Before I begin shopping, I have to honestly evaluate who I am today, in this stage of my life.

When horse shopping, many of us are tempted to buy horses that would have been great for younger or imagined versions of ourselves, and then we end up “over-horsed.” We become intimidated by the gorgeous, athletic, usually young, hot thing we fell in love with, wishing we had the ability to ride it. Unfortunately, all too often the owner gets hurt and the horse is resold; or the owner sits on the sidelines watching the trainer do most of the riding.

Too much horse?

Too much horse?

CHOOSE CAREFULLY for who you are RIGHT NOW; not who you used to be, or who you hope to become.

If you currently think you might have the wrong horse…you may find it helpful to read the post, “When it’s time to part company with your horse.” Sometimes it’s just best to find a different owner for your horse, and then you are free to find a better match for yourself.

Once I have figured out what kind of rider I am these days – with my limitations, fears, injuries, issues, and experience, strengths, too – then I can proceed to think about what I should look for. Here are some questions I ask myself when horse shopping:

What do I want to do with this horse? Trails, dressage, team penning, driving, endurance, jumping, eventing or ? I’m sure I left some discipline out! Think about your current riding interests and needs. Six years ago, my husband and I went to a Dude Ranch in the Colorado Rockies. While there, I rode an agile, somewhat hot 14.2 hd Arab/Quarter pony on the trail, and fell in love with him. I wanted to bring him home with me! but I knew he wouldn’t be happy in the confinement of my barn in California.  I realized that I really loved riding agile little horses – ponies! – and that I wanted a safe, fun trail horse. I so longed to ride on the trails and I hadn’t been doing it for years because my dressage horse was too spooky and just not fun or relaxing on the trails. I convinced my husband to let me have a trail pony in addition to the dressage horse (yay! lucky me!), and I began researching large pony breeds. So my answer to “what do I want to do with this horse?” at this time was: Trails! and maybe a little jumping.

Colorado Rockies

Colorado Rockies

What kind of horse would I need in order to do this successfully? I needed something safe, fun, and sound. If it jumped, too, that sure would be nice, because I thought I would enjoy doing some jumping (hadn’t jumped in decades, but why not?).

What kind of horse do I most enjoy riding? For me, it was something small and cute, agile and forward but not hot or spooky. Sensible and safe without being lazy. Hopefully low maintenance (ha ha), didn’t have to be very fancy, and for this horse, I didn’t want to spend much since it was mainly going to be my trail horse. Pretty would be nice, too, since it’s always nice to enjoy looking at your horse, but my daughter reminded me: “pretty is as pretty does.”


What size range will I consider? I’m a big believer in adults on large ponies (that’s another article), but everyone can come up with a size range that feels right. I would simply say here: be open minded. Too many of us think we “have” to ride a certain size, usually quite large, when we might be much more comfortable on a smaller horse. Give yourself a generous size range (a little smaller and larger than you might think) so that you can include many horses in your search. Old ideas about your height and the height you “need” to ride might need to be revisited. Try some sizes you may not have previously considered and you might be surprised!

Which gender? I always look at both geldings and mares (I own one of each). Mares can be very sweet and nurturing and bond deeply to their owners. Generally, they take more tact to ride, but they reward it. Some mares can be difficult when they are in season, while others have no problem. I hardly ever know when my mare, Ellie, is in season. Geldings, on the other hand, are generally considered a bit more predictable. Both are great! Unless you are very experienced, I would not recommend stallions or a horse that has been very recently gelded as these can take some special handling skills.

My mare, Tatiana, gives me a horse hug

My mare, Tatiana, gives me a horse hug

What age? Take into consideration your experience and life stage. If you are “older,” get a mature horse, 8-14 yrs old. Sometimes an even older horse can be appropriate if you are looking for something with a lot of training or experience. The older, still serviceably sound schoolmaster has a lot to offer. If you can handle a young prospect and have experience with green horses, by all means do it! They can be fun, but they are not for the fainthearted.

What breed? Some people have strong breed preferences either pro or con. They will ONLY get a certain breed, or they will NEVER own a certain breed. I’m more flexible, although like everyone I have my biases. While there are variations within each breed, certainly there are tendencies, too. Unless you are an expert and have really researched the breed, try to be open minded about breeding and look at the individual. You might be surprised. That said, if your dream horse is a blonde Haflinger and you really understand the breed characteristics, then get one 🙂 My dream trail and jumping 14.1 hd horse turned out to be the beauty at left.

How much training does this horse need to have? Depending on my goals, the horse needs to already have a certain amount of experience and training invested in it. This will likely be reflected in the price, but it could well be worth it to me. A green (untrained) horse is not always a bargain. When you start to consider how many years (and how much money in board and training) it will be before you can do what you wanted to do – whether that is going safely down the trail or competing at shows – spending a bit more up front to KNOW that your horse can do these things begins to seem worth it. Generally, I encourage people to go for a horse with experience and training unless they are experienced at training horses themselves.

How far am I willing to travel in order to see horses? You can drive certain distances, or get on an airplane and fly hundreds or many thousands of miles…even to another continent. It depends on your stamina and your budget, of course! Remember that each trip costs you time and money, so you’ll want to plan them wisely and get as much information as you can up front. I have a rule that I won’t even get in a car without seeing video and asking a lot of questions if the drive is more than 20 minutes. Why waste my time and energy? Or the seller’s? Of course rules are made to be broken and if someone I knew well told me the horse was worth seeing, I might drive to see it anyway. But I certainly would not get on an airplane without a lot of video and conversation.

What temperament does this horse have?

What temperament does this horse have?

What sort of temperament do I want? Horses, like people, come in all types of personalities and temperaments. Some use a temperament scale of 1-10 (1= very laid back and 10= very hot), while others speak more about personality types such as dominant, submissive, challenging, fearful, and so on. It’s important to think carefully about your own temperament and style and pick the right match. If you tend to be cautious, a reactive or fearful horse will not be right for you. If you are new to horses, a challenging horse will rapidly take over and things will go badly. A horse that needs a strong leader will fare badly if you are not able to be that leader. Even if you are experienced, you may know by now that you like calm, submissive horses, and that’s fine. Look for one. On the other hand, maybe you like them hot and reactive. If you can handle it, fine. Just know what you’re getting and be realistic.

What most people dream of is a horse that is sensitive and forward, but not at all spooky or reactive to “that thing in the bushes.” I do not believe they exist.

Yes, you can train them to be sensitive and obedient to the aids. But in my experience, a horse that is 1-3 on the temperament scale tends to have a laid-back attitude towards everything (including your aids at times). Good news: she isn’t spooky or if she spooks, it isn’t very big and it’s over very quickly. She returns to calm quickly and is generally very sensible, keeping her brain engaged. Bad news: when you want to activate energy, you have to keep reactivating that energy. She tends to return to calm very quickly because that’s her temperament. Great for ambling down the trail, maybe not so great for doing upper level dressage, but pick your poison. Spooky reactive horse? Or safe horse that you have to reactivate frequently? At this stage of my life, I’m picking calmer horses and I’ll work a little harder. When I was younger, I would have picked hotter. Know who you are, what you want to do with the horse, and pick accordingly.

How much can I spend? Recognize that horses that are in the prime age range (8-12), sound, with good temperaments, trained, with experience in the discipline of your choice, good movers, attractive, etc. are usually in high demand and do not go cheaply. Horses that fall outside these parameters – a little older or younger, less trained, perhaps with an issue of one sort or another – will generally be less expensive. We will talk, in another article, about pricing and negotiating.

If you want it all, most likely you will have to pay a premium for it. That said, occasionally you will luck out and find a horse that is a good value for one reason or another.

The owner may be motivated to sell, or the horse may not be an expensive breed, but still able to do everything you want. You don’t HAVE to spend tons of money; but remember: It’s not the buying, it’s the keeping! Board and training very quickly add up. Do not be “penny wise and pound foolish,” buying a horse because he’s a bargain, only to find he was not a good match for you and now you’re stuck with him. Better to spend a bit more upfront and have the right horse, or to wait and keep shopping.Expensive Taste

When it’s time to part company with your horse

Most of us, when we buy a horse, expect that it is going to be a long term relationship, “as long as we both shall live.”

Zorro: had to be rehomed for health issues

Zorro had to be rehomed for health issues

Unfortunately, for your sake or for hers, sometimes you have to “break up” with your horse and find him or her a new home. What are some of the signs that it’s time to break up?

  • You’re afraid to ride the horse and the fear is growing rather than lessening. You’ve tried getting professional help but it’s not enough to change the equation. Listen to your gut, it’s telling you something important.
  • You’ve realized this is “too much” horse for you: too hot, too reactive, too athletic, too young, too inexperienced, too something.
  • The horse cannot do the work you want to do. Maybe you want to jump and this horse has a soundness issue and can’t jump any more but would make a terrific trail horse. Or your dream is to do upper level eventing, but this horse is just not athletic enough. Both of you will be happier with new dance partners.
  • You’ve had many good years with your horse, but now he has aged and needs to retire. You still want to ride, and your horse needs either pasture or an easier job.
  • You have injuries or health issues that require you to have a different kind of horse. For example, your horse’s gaits consistently hurt your back and though you’ve addressed it through lessons and tack, you need a different gaited (or size) horse at this stage of your life. Maybe you are also changing disciplines, from jumping to trail riding, for example.
  • You just don’t enjoy riding this horse. If it’s not fun, why do it? Sure we go through times when it might be difficult for a season; when we need some extra help from a trainer, or we and the horse need some variety in our work to spice things up. Or perhaps the horse has some medical issues that need to be addressed, and then he would be fun to ride again. But maybe this horse just isn’t a good fit for you and isn’t fun because he scares you, or because he’s too laid back for you. Either way, if he is not a match for you, chances are you can find his match for him – and a much better match for you. Riding should be FUN! It’s too expensive and too much work for it to feel like drudgery.

I’ve had to rehome several horses and each time it has been heartbreaking. I’ve cried and cried and resisted it, and then realized that this was best for BOTH of us.

If the match isn’t right, both partners suffer. As horse owners, it is our responsibility to be as sure as we can that our horses have responsible, caring, and knowledgeable homes, but we are not married to our horses. Sometimes it is best – and safest! – for both of us to find new partners for our horses, and for ourselves.

Finn: just right

Finn: just right

I’m happier now that I have horses that are good matches for me in temperament and ability. My former horses are doing the jobs that they want to do and are equipped for with very nice people who love them. Though rehoming a horse is not to be done lightly, if any of the above situations feels like it fits you, it may be time to think seriously about whether it’s time to part company with your horse.

Alfredo Hernandez Piaffe Clinic # 1: Don’t let him see you cry

Recently I attended an Alfredo Hernandez passage/piaffe clinic. My pony Finn and I are training at 4th level/PSG and it seemed a good time to introduce a bit of piaffe. Not to mention I have always DREAMED of riding piaffe and I finally own a horse who maybe could do it. Let’s try it! So I signed up.

I asked my friend, who had been several times, what should I expect? What does he do? My friend is very no nonsense and an experienced horse woman whose horse is well on the road to doing piaffe and passage (yay!). She doesn’t mince words.

“First of all, he can’t remember your name so he calls everyone Princess or Gorgeous.”

I don’t mind that. I’m now at an age where it’s rather rare to be called gorgeous so I’ll take it when I can, even if it’s just because he can’t remember my name.

And if you’re scared, don’t tell him, because he’ll just laugh at you. Just deal with your fear. Don’t let him see you cry, because that just makes him mad,

she said, looking at me with a warning shake of her head.

Why would I cry?

“Well, a lot of these women have really big warmbloods that they’re kind of scared of already, and when they start training piaffe, the horse starts leaping around, rearing, or bucking, or backing up fast, and the women get terrified. Alfredo gets annoyed if you can’t just deal with it. It’s your job as the rider to deal with it, or you shouldn’t be there.

"Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird."

“Mom, why did you tape my tail up like this? It feels weird.”

Hmmm. True. But also making me a little nervous now. One of my riding goals is NOT-TO-FALL-OFF, and before you diehards scoff, when you get to a certain age, it’s a good goal to have. We don’t bounce like we used to. But the lure of Piaffe is strong, my trust in my pony is deep (most of the time), and so: off to the clinic! Did we piaffe? Read our next post to find out!

The Value of Video: a look in the mirror

I am a visual learner. Tell me something, and I’m unlikely to remember it. If I do it, there’s a better chance, but just talk at me and 9 chances out of 10, I won’t remember it at all.

My friends know that vague look I get when they say, “remember, I TOLD you that already.” Really? Huh. So riding lessons are problematic for me. I learn kinesthetically (from doing the riding), and occasionally I will remember some particularly great illustration the instructor gives me, but so much of what they tell me just evaporates from my brain. I hear it in the moment and think it’s wonderful, but then I forget it.

Videotaping my lessons and clinics allows me to repeat the lessons, so I can SEE what the

Video is a look in the mirror and a reality check

Video is a look in the mirror and a reality check

instructor meant and increase the impact.

Sadly, I don’t always quite believe my riding instructors until I see the evidence with my own eyes; kind of like not realizing quite how much weight you’ve put on until the doctor makes you step on that scale. Reality check.

I think some of us avoid video because we don’t really want to know. Hey, I know how it is. There are times I have refused to watch my videos after a particularly painful clinic or dressage test. But isn’t it better to know the truth?

Someone very wise said, “the truth shall set you free.” The truth will also help us become much better riders because we will be free from misconceptions about how we think things are going.

That judge we thought was blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other? Turns out she was pretty accurate after all. The video shows it all. It MIGHT even show us that some things are BETTER than we thought! Imagine that.

In order to get better video (less “vomit cam,” as my husband endearingly calls it), bring a tripod for your videographer. Of course you can take short videos on your smart phone and those are better than nothing, but there are many good small and inexpensive cameras out there now that will do a better job for you and you can put them on a tripod and even just leave it set up during your lesson.

A caution about video, though: be kind to yourself. We’re all in process and none of us is (yet) perfect. Before you rip your riding apart, be sure to find things you are doing right. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Make a rule that you have to make at least as many positive as negative comments while you watch your video. Catch yourself doing things well and praise yourself!

elliejumpYou can tell I’m a bit of a perfectionist, but I suspect many of us suffer from the same affliction. Some of us can be too hard on ourselves and a little kindness and grace would be a good thing. True of much of life, and not just riding, so be kind to yourself today, o.k.?

Tell that inner critic to take a break and recognize the progress you’ve made and the good job you are doing in many areas of your life.

And then keep working on the rest of it, knowing that you are still learning, still growing.