Horse Care Other Riding Tips

Dangerous Horses: The Result of Being Abused

abused horse
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Written by Lindsey Rains

Intentional and unintentional abuse

Abuse is a big word amongst animal lovers. Many of us have met or rehabilitated animals that have been through some sort of abuse or neglect. But what are we supposed to do when the horse we rescued is so broken that they seem impossible to work with?

Furthermore, is it possible that we could perpetuate practices that could lead to further abuse without even realizing it? Of course, none of us would outright abuse our animals, but stay with me, because in this article, we will address:

  • How and why abuse happens
  • How to identify a horse who has suffered abuse
  • How to approach an abused horses’ handling and training

Abuse is often considered the opposite of bonding, the opposite of trust, but that’s not always the case. An abusive dynamic happens when you’ve gained the trust of an equine, and then utterly shattered it to the point of them regretting that trust, not just in you, but in all humans.

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How and Why Abuse Happens

None of us want to hear this, but we are all capable of abusing our horses. Be it through poor instruction we have received, high-octane emotions from our personal life spilling over into our barn time, or being inconsistent with how we handle our horse, we are all capable of shattering our horse’s trust and mistreating them, even if for just a moment.

In order to understand the root of abuse, we need to be able to recognize it in ourselves.

We need to identify with the problem in a way that doesn’t compound blame or hatred. There are some who don’t care that they mistreat or neglect their horses, and that is simply abhorrent.

The majority of abuse, however, happens due to ignorance and not knowing a better way to deal with horses. The first way that abuse can happen is when the handler is out of touch or not dealing with his or her own stressors, emotions, or trauma. We have all been here to a certain degree, right? We come to the barn with all the angst from work, stressing about our finances, or heartbroken over a relational fracture.

Instead of recognizing and dealing with our emotions themselves, we let them slip out in unhealthy ways at our horse’s expense.

horse ears pinned

Source: Pixabay

Does this sound familiar?

Now, imagine someone who lives his life that way, and continues to take out all of his angst on the horse. Horrendous in practice, it is usually triggered from a moment when “the horse is being bad.” So they kick him hard on the side, they wail on him with a whip, or run him way too hard. Notice that these are all reactions that have deviated from more appropriate responses.

It is not abusive to make your horse circle when he’s not listening. It is abusive to spin him around you for twenty minutes at a near-canter with his body completely tight with fear. It is abusive to beat a horse with any object, or to repetitively yank on his face, withhold food from him, or practice any correction with cruelty. If the pattern continues, the horse begins to associate humans as a predator, not an ally.

dangerous horses quote

Source: Lindsey Rains

How to Identify a Horse Who Has Suffered Abuse

Horses will tell you about their past abuse in different ways. Some will be incredibly aggressive, others will be skittish. Others yet will be loners, keeping to themselves, and not interested in interaction whatsoever. Many horses will be a combination of all of these things depending on the level and length of abuse they experienced.

The basic question to consider is if the horse’s reaction seems appropriate to the situation.

Are they much more aggressive than the average horse about personal space? Are they extremely skittish to the human touch? Do they spend time hiding behind other horses and stay away from humans? They may have been abused, and you can find specific issues of trauma based on situations that trigger these reactions even more.

However she tells you about her past harm, the greatest challenge with an abused horse is her memory. All her behavior stems back to the reality of her trauma, because to her it is still imminent. From an instinctual perspective, to forget what happened to her is to set herself up for harm again.  

Depending on how significantly she was traumatized, the horse may or may not be able to differentiate the difference between a trustworthy human and an untrustworthy one.

You may have read the story of Karen and Isaac in A Partnership Like Ours. In Isaac’s case, he had been so thoroughly abused that all humans were awful. Though Karen is now working one by one through his individual fears from his past, his overarching fear is about humans, not situations or objects.

Seeing humans as the predator, the horse will try to protect itself. Many will run away as much as possible. Some will be ready to bite, kick, or bulldoze out of self defense. The task is great to rehabilitate these animals from their dangerous yet fragile state, but it can be done.

dangerous horses quote block

Source: Lindsey Rains

How to Approach Handling and Training

While we may not be able to intervene when a horse is being abused, we can change the trajectory of their new experiences. We can show them with time and patience that humans can be trusted, and teach them certain manners to prevent future abuse if they need to be re-homed.

Please note that with abused horses, extra measures of safety need to be taken. Do not work alone with an abused horse if you are inexperienced with horses or have never dealt with behavioral issues before. When in doubt, take the safest route with retraining.

Want a step-by-step guide to to helping neglected horses? Check out our interview with author Dr. Stacie Boswell

Take Things Slowly:

Let this be the one tip to rule the others. The abused horse will have suffered trauma that you probably don’t know about. You only have part of the story, at best. Anything could be a trigger.

Take all new experiences slowly until you have a feel for their reaction. If you push a horse too far through something they are afraid of, it could backfire and break some of the trust you’ve built with them.

Have a Loose Agenda:

Because you don’t know what will be under the surface of their trauma, be willing to redirect your lesson plan at any time. Whatever you may have planned to work on might be too overwhelming for them. They may even let you know that they are ready to walk through something that you didn’t expect them to.

Take the opportunity to be present with them in the moment and to learn together.Go with the flow and get creative with what they are allowing you to see.

Retraining a traumatized horse is more about doing things together, and less about a checklist of accomplishments.

Be Clear About Boundaries:

A lot of abused horses were punished because their owners weren’t consistent with their boundaries.  They would allow the undesired behavior to happen until they finally snapped on the horse, leaving them guessing as to why they were in trouble.  In order to gain your horse’s full trust, you will have to be clear about what you expect of them and stick with it.

Not all boundaries will be communicated at once, but if you don’t allow your horse to bite, make sure (even if it’s just a jerk to their lead rope) that the behavior will never be tolerated.  Don’t escalate your punishment, just make it a hassle for them to overrule you as their leader.

The abused horse will settle knowing that they don’t need to be in charge.

Spend a LOT of Extra Time Bonding:

Even more than your average horse, the abused horse needs to know that you have the best intentions for them. When you’re not schooling them, let them know that you are there to care for them. If they are standoffish, come to their paddock to leave them a little extra grain. Spend time hanging out around them.

Pet or massage them on their neck and shoulder first (the safe zone) and progressively get them used to your touch over their whole body. Talk to them soothingly. Give them every reason to believe that you are trustworthy and want to care for them.

Read my 4-part series about how to build a better bond with your horse.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Are horses abused?

Unfortunately, yes, some horses are abused. Abuse is an imprecise term that categorizes a variety of improper treatments towards horses and can include things such as neglect, starvation, drugging, or physically hurting a horse. How individuals define abuse can vary depending on their perceptions and context, which makes it difficult to align on a clear-cut, black and white definition.

That said, abuse generally is more willful than a case of neglect. Animal cruelty is defined as an act that causes unnecessary pain or suffering and is a crime in every state in America. Prosecution may take place in either civil or criminal courts.

What should you do if you see a neglected horse?

If you think you see a horse that is being neglected, report the case to local authorities who are qualified to investigate. It’s important to identify violations of the law in your complaint, not only your personal horse care standards, as those can vary quite a bit from person to person.

Never trespass or try to take matters into your own hands. The best way to report a case of neglect is to call your local law enforcement (please use the local, non-emergency number) or your local animal control agency. You could also reach out to a local horse rescue group—these organizations are familiar with local law enforcement and can provide a second opinion if you are unsure about the best way to handle the situation.

How long before a horse is considered abandoned??

There is no “industry standard” length of time currently defined for equine abandonment. Livestock laws differ from state to state—consult with a legal professional if you have questions.

A horse may be considered abandoned if the owner stops showing up or stops paying for the horse’s care. The stable (or landowner) would still be responsible for the animal’s care though. There are a lot of industry myths that, if followed, can result in legal repercussions. While there are “stablemen’s lien” laws that allow boarding stables to take possession of an abandoned horse, different states require different actions to recoup unpaid expenses.

How do you tell if a horse is being neglected?

Neglect refers to lack of care. There are many reasons for neglect; two of the most common explanations are ignorance or a change in financial situation. Neglect is generally defined as a failure to provide the basic necessities of life—food, water, shelter, and veterinary care.

A few signs of obvious neglect include:

  • Malnutrition visible as a 1 or 2 on the Body Condition Scoring Chart (Poor or Very Thin)
  • No shelter available
  • No water available
  • No food available (unfortunately this generally does not specify the quality or type of food provided)
  • Horses confined to poor sanitation conditions, such as standing in their own urine and deep feces
  • Obvious, visible injuries that are not being cared for (e.g. wounds that are festering or hooves that have begun to curl due to lack of farrier care)

How do you report horse abuse anonymously?

You can anonymously report horse abuse through the Crime Stoppers website (they have an anonymous tip line), through your local equine rescue, or your local animal control agency. Additionally, you can report abuse or neglect through the Humane Society’s website—these reports are kept confidential.

Be aware that reporting anonymously makes it more difficult for law enforcement to follow up and hold the responsible parties accountable. They are more likely to follow up on tips with credible witnesses who are willing to go on record and stand behind their reports.

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Conclude With Caring

Horses are naturally skittish animals as it is. With domestication, we teach them how to relate to us humans, as well as how to trust us. Horses that have been abused are harder to train than a horse that is new to handling, because their experience with humans has been largely negative.

Your task is to convince them that the species that inflicted so much harm upon them before are no longer dangerous.

The amazing thing about horses who have undergone abuse is that they yet are capable of incredible compassion and trust. As much as they fear trusting a human again, they, more than the average horse, crave the feeling of safety and connection. The abused horses are worth the extra time, effort, and patience to rehabilitate, because in return they will offer their whole heart back to you for the chance to belong to someone who will not harm them.

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About the author

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Lindsey Rains

Lindsey Rains is the owner of Hoof Print Marketing, a boutique equestrian social media agency serving clients like The Plaid Horse, Savvy Horsewoman, and (of course!) Horse Rookie. She resides in Post Falls, ID, USA, with her husband, where she loves taking jumping lessons.