Sunday, March 23, 2008

PTSD in Horses

After living and working through a traumatic trailer-loading incident that happened last spring with our pony, I've been interested in PTSD and horses.

We had taken the little man to a cross-country clinic, and when it came time to load for the trip home, he didn't want to get on the trailer. No crazy behavior, no drama, he simply stood at the door and refused to step up.

Our method was to take a breath, remain calm, and continue asking. I knew he'd get on at some point. Before this could happen, though, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of well-intentioned helpers who proceeded to put a rope behind him, surrounded him on both sides, and when he reared, got out a longe whip. This all happened so quickly I didn't have time to intervene. In a moment's time, he had leaped into the trailer. My only response was to express relief that my daughter had seen him coming and gotten out of the way.

He was traumatized by the incident and I knew I didn't know enough to help him through it. We called Marlis Amato and she came out to our farm within the week to help. My daughter now loads him one hoof at a time, with no force and no drama.

We're still working with Marlis. A few weeks ago in a lesson, I asked her to watch my daughter ride the pony using a dressage whip. If even tapped (and I do mean tap, no hitting involved) with the whip, he would sometimes buck. Marlis wondered out loud if he might be having flashbacks to some traumatic experience with a whip.

I instantly teared up and went to hug the pony. In all my work with trauma and humans, it hadn't really occurred to me that this pony, who was bred and trained by a loving family, could be experiencing flashbacks. I know he hasn't been abused, but it's possible some early experience frightened him. He doesn't like whips, particular the sound of a longe whip being "cracked."

I've been reading about PTSD in horses and came across an amazing website that chronicles two horses that paint, but even more remarkable, the story of the first year of work with a young abused horse named Da Vinci. In written diary entries and video, the couple who train him reveal their work with this amazing horse.

I highly recommend reading from beginning to end.


Rising Rainbow said...

Unfortunately, I already know about PTSD in horses. Horses have incredible memories and it only makes sense that they would recall frightening things as well as other things.

I hope you come to a resolution soon with your pony. Some take longers than others to get through such things.

But on another note, some horses just don't like the whip. It doesn't necessarily have to be from a former experience. Although I would say if you're getting a violent reaction (not just a little "ooooh" kind of buck) that I would suspect a problem.

Anonymous said...

I am glad you have some help for the traumatized horse, Billie. My first thought upon reading this, was to wonder about the cognitive processes of horses. I wonder if the horse has any understanding about what is happening during a flashback. I wonder if there is any cognitive process that can give the horse some concept of 'not now', or 'similar, but not actual'. The poor thing. It's hard enough on a human, even with our capacity to understand intellectually. Even that does not take all the agony out of a full-blown flashback.

I like your way of being gentle with the horse instead of hurrying him to do something without respect for the feelings he is experiencing. Even if there is no way for him to have any concept of time, it seems like the concept of love and safety in the face of a perceived threat could eventually help.

I wonder if the horse could find some special way to feel and relate with an intuitive human who has PTSD. I wonder what that connection might look like and what information might come from it.

Zoo Keeper

billie said...

MiKael, it doesn't at all surprise me that horses can recall bad and scary experiences - but the flashbacks and the chemical changes that happen in humans when exposed to trauma - that is something I hadn't really considered before.

His response is by no means violent. It's sudden and very connected to the tap of the whip. I suspect he really doesn't like it, although he has no problem being stroked with it all over,and will take it in his teeth and carry it around.

I wonder if he didn't like it and then during the trailer incident the appearance of a longe whip when he was already so scared just sent him over the edge. He was not hit with the whip nor was it cracked - it just got waved in his face. (bad enough, in my opinion)

I probably should have also written that he is doing wonderfully - a few weeks ago he free-jumped with my daughter while she was doing groundwork. He's also been "asking" to go over jumps if they're in the arena when she rides, and she's been ending most of her rides on him with a few jumps.

Grey Horse Matters said...

I have seen PTSD first hand with some of our horses. Things could be going along just fine and instantly turn into a "where did that come from", situation. Mostly it is Donnie, who was abused before we got him. Since we don't know exactly what happened to him it is hard to tell just when he will have an episode and what could cause it. Mellon was also abused in his younger years and while he is still slightly neurotic he has worked through most of his issues. I must say though working with horses is always interesting and keeps you on your toes.
By the way, I really enjoyed the video of the horses painting,I haven't read the diary yet but will get to it.

billie said...

L, I'm not sure he's actually having flashbacks. There's no other behavior that suggests he's absent from the present moment in time.

My sense is that he lost a lot of trust in us when the incident with the trailer occurred, and the sourness under saddle that followed was his way of showing that.

We have loaded and hauled him a number of times since the work was done, and each time he tested just a little to see - would we allow people to scare him to get him on the trailer, or would we stick to our slow and easy method? The moment he realized we intended to use the same calm method he loaded with no problems, and it has gotten better each time - less need to test.

Kenzie stopped using the whip for a number of months and now we've re-introduced it mainly b/c I want him to experience that he's safe even if Kenzie carries it. The feeling I get when he bucks is more like he's saying "I don't like this."

He's a bold, willful pony and needs a strong leader who sets very clear boundaries. However, most of his willfulness comes out when he's anxious, so it's important to calm him first - then the willful behaviors disappear. If you address the willfulness and ignore the anxiety, or don't understand that he is anxious, things escalate.

billie said...

Arlene, I'm especially interested in what happens when the horses have one of those episodes you describe.

Apache does not get crazy or seem as if he's responding to things that aren't happening. His only response is a very controlled little buck and then he moves on.

I'm so interested in learning more about this - not so much because I think our pony is experiencing flashbacks, but b/c it parallels my work with clients and I'm extremely interested in knowing how the horse's brain works by comparison.

If you come across any books or studies that deal with this issue directly, please pass them on!

Grey Horse Matters said...

Hi Billie,
I contacted my daughter and asked her to send me a synopsis on her view of the situation with Donnie, she is much better educated in horse behavior than I am and this is the response she sent back:

Donnie’s response is sort of unique, but one I would describe as a ‘flashback’ or ‘panic attack.’ Donnie came to us as an abuse case – he had come from a ranch and had clearly been ‘cowboyed’ in the negative sense. He had been ear twitched, branded and his entire body was covered with scars. He was difficult to halter and would cower in the back of his stall, cringing and shaking, any time a human approached his stall. I can only imagine the methods used to ‘break’ him, and he had the signs of some pretty ugly saddle and girth galls when we got him, including two very deep wounds on either side of his withers where the hair still grows in white.
His ‘flashbacks’ seem to occur only when he is girthed (and we’ve considered that he might just be girthy, but he reacts the same way if you use a stretchy elastic surcingle, tie a very loose polo wrap around his girth area or put a weight tape on him….it seems to be more the IDEA of a girth than the actual pressure.) He’s been thoroughly examined by vets several times, including full x-rays and nuclear scintigraphy, all of which have shown a completely sound, healthy, and pain free horse. we’ve also experimented with muscle relaxers and tranquilizers to no avail. He will not tolerate acupuncture or massage, though he does allow the chiropractor.
Here’s what happens: when the girth or similar item is placed around his body, he will usually take a few steps and then you will hear a sharp intake of breath like a hiccup– this is the cue something is happening; he will tense his entire body, round his back, and expand his ribcage (tightening the girth even more). Then he will either immediately begin bucking, or will simply freeze. In this state he cannot be approached (or, if you happen to be sitting on him, you cannot move or try to dismount) or he will begin thrashing and flailing wildly. His expression is one of sheer panic, and it’s almost as if his eyes roll back in his head and he is no longer aware of his surroundings, though oddly enough, he never runs into objects or people when he has one of his episodes. You can’t do anything for him until he comes back to himself, and sometimes approaching him – and especially approaching the girth area (to remove the offending item) - will immediately precipitate another episode. Even after he has ‘come down’ his muscles and skin will continue twitching for a few minutes, and his heart and breathing rate will be elevated.

We don’t attempt to ride him anymore, as it clearly can have traumatic consequences for him, though we do continue to work with him in hand and on the longe in hopes of helping him gradually overcome his fears. We are considering trying him bareback, though this has its obvious hazards as well. He can be ridden with a loose, padded girth at times (not the safest thing to do), but you never know what might bring on an episode. Once, we were trotting through the field and he saw a hole in the ground – when he lowered his head to get a better look, the girth tightened and he went into fit of thrashing (depositing me IN the hole) and ran back to the barn… The odd thing is, we were able to ride him for a few months without incident when he first came to us; the issue only developed later, and quite suddenly, even though he had not had a single traumatic experience with a girth or saddle since he had been in our barn. I have read that, in humans, PTSD can be dormant for months after the initial trauma and only develop later.

My understanding of PTSD is limited, but from what I have read, memories are best and most permanently imprinted in the presence of adrenaline – ie ‘fear’ or some other kind of stress. In the Darwinian sense, this is a survival mechanism, which causes the animal to recollect with great accuracy and urgency something in the past which caused it fear or pain in order to avoid exposure to a similar situation in the present. But in some cases, that ‘warning system’ can become overly sensitized or be set off by inappropriate stimuli, and this can become a debilitating disorder. Unfortunately, horses have many reasons to feel stressed, so often it is fearful memories that are the best retained, while all of the good things that happen to them while they are relaxed and happy are not as likely to stick with them. Aside from the ethical question of using fear or pain to train an animal, this is a very valid reason to use non-stressful training methods and create environments as conducive to positive experiences as possible, because the unintended consequences of scaring or hurting a horse can work against you in the long term.

As far as your pony’s situation, I would doubt he is experiencing the kind of flashbacks Donnie has. My suspicion is that, for some reason, at that moment, the prospect of loading on the trailer produced an adrenaline response, and in that heightened state of awareness and worry, anything associated with that experience would be imprinted as ‘something to be afraid of’ – including the whip. Fortunately, horses are resilient and I am sure with your gentle, patient approach, you will be able to overcome any bad associations that may be attached to the whip with time.

These are just her thoughts on Donnie and PTSD, I hope you find it interesting.

billie said...

Arlene, thank you so much for asking your daughter, AND for her wonderful, thorough, response. It's exactly what I was wanting to read.

I have never witnessed an episode like what she described with a horse, but it IS what I imagined a full-blown flashback would look like.

This is definitely far beyond anything we've experienced with the pony. Even when we attempted to load him after the offensive incident, while he was clearly upset and fearful, it was obviously the memory of what had happened so recently, not a flashback where he relived the trauma.

The scariest thing about flashbacks with clients is absolutely the fact that initially they don't know when one is coming. One of the goals of therapy is to identify the triggers, which helps them avoid flashbacks. I'm not sure how this could be applied to horses, but it sounds like you have developed a lot of information about Donnie and have tailored your work with him to accommodate his needs.

It is thought that in humans the more trauma experienced the lower the threshold for future trauma, so applying that to horses, where very routine things like training, loading, etc. can become traumatic, it does seem very short-sighted to intentionally produce fear. It's only going to increase the odds that the horse experiences difficulty and more trauma in the future.

Thank you so much for the response. I so appreciate it.

I have the opportunity very shortly to do a training with Bessel van der Kolk, who is one of the pioneers of trauma research and treatment, and I hope I can find a moment to ask if he has any knowledge about the trauma response in horses and if it is similar to humans.

Janet Roper said...

It never occurred to me to think of PSTD in horses. Shiloh will sometimes have episodes that I have puzzled over. There's no rhyme or reason that I can see for the episode ~ for instance he will walk past a fence with a blanket on it a kazillion times, and then on kazillion and one time, he goes nuts. The only way I can think to describe it is that it's like his mind leaves. We can be in the indoor arena and the same thing can happen, whether he's the only horse in there or with other horses he knows.

He had his left eye removed 2 years ago due to moonblindness, and part of me wonders if this has something to do with it. On the other hand, he's had these episodes off and on since we've been together - 11 years.

Thanks for this conversation - it gives me a different way to think about how to help Shiloh.


billie said...

Janet, Salina had her right eye removed many years ago and she does amazingly well. However, there are times when she needs to turn her left eye toward something she hears and she can swing around rather quickly. For the most part she does trust the human holding the lead rope, but if she senses anxiety, etc. she will "take care of herself."

There are a few things that are very difficult for her - she hates being given paste wormer and any kind of oral medication that comes from a tube. Over time I've developed a method where I lay the tube flat on her face, higher up the cheek area, and slide the whole thing down to her mouth, then slip the tip in during that same motion. For some reason this makes the whole thing okay.

She also does much better not tied. I give her Adequan injections in the field with a lead rope hanging loose over her neck, and much of her grooming is done w/o halter or lead rope.

Good luck with your guy - I know a number of horses with one eye who do incredibly well.

Janet Roper said...

Hi billie,
Thanks for your comment and words of encouragement. Shiloh actually doesn't do too badly with just one eye, but as you say, there are times when he needs to turn to check things out. I probably worry more about it than is necessary. I love watching how his pasture buddies will protect his blind side, or should they want to annoy him, they make sure they do it on his sighted side.

Of course, Shiloh is not above using his blind side to his advantage. For instance, when he pulls a full bale of hay into his stall and 'hides' it in the back of his stall. He then stands with his sighted side to the bale, keeping an eye on it, and meanwhile, with his blind side towards me says "I can't see you, therefore you can't see me or my bale of hay".

Horses make my heart sing.

billie said...

Janet, I LOVE the story of Shiloh and his full bale of hay! That is priceless.

I remember once when I first met Keil Bay - I was leading him down the very long barn aisle back out to pasture and someone had thrown down the day's bales from the loft, off to the side of the aisle.

As we walked down the aisle, at a fairly brisk walk b/c of course he was thrilled to be going back out, Keil Bay reached over in full stride, grabbed one of the bales in his teeth, and proceeded to march on down the aisle with it. Talk about helping himself to a hefty snack!

Bringing this back around to PTSD - I have been very impressed and surprised that Salina has no issues with her eyes being messed with. I can sponge out the socket, sponge off the good eye, put drops in, etc. and she is not the least bit shy about that. It makes me think whoever owned her when the eye was removed did a wonderful job of caring for her before and after. No residual trauma there.

Thanks for sharing Shiloh's story. He sounds delightful!

Grey Horse Matters said...

Hi Billie,
My daughter was wondering if there are any medications or treatments that humans are using for PTSD, that are being used in animals or might be suitable for use with horses, that you know of. She is hoping to perhaps find a way to treat Donnie, and help him overcome his fears. He is a very sad little guy and although we do what we can it really isn't enough to make him functional. We feel so sorry for him, he is one of the sweetest of horses you could ever know. Thanks for any comments or help you can give us. Arlene

billie said...

Arlene, I'm not an MD and most of the trauma cases I see these days are adults who prefer NOT to take medication, so my recent experience with the med piece is minimal.

Most of the time clients on meds were on antidepressants if anything, sometimes with anti-anxiety meds as needed or minor tranquilizers to help with sleeping.

Re: treatment - there are a number of techniques useful in addressing the debilitating symptoms including flashbacks, but the precursor to everything is developing a trusting, safe, therapeutic relationship where the focus is always on the client's pace. There are a few methods out there that advocate pushing the client to relive the trauma and these can be very harmful, and in fact, can make the therapy office itself a trigger for the flashbacks.

Much of the early work is teaching clients to predict and then stop the flashbacks.

I'm not sure how these techniques might apply to horses except that if you know the triggers and can avoid them, you can possibly stop the flashbacks.

Finding alternate ways to achieve the same goal - ie. if girthing is a trigger, looking for different ways to girth and/or ride (as your daughter has) would be a good place to start.

With humans, teaching them ways to connect to the present during the flashbacks helps them to stop them. This can be as simple as teaching them to create "anchors" to literally touch during the flashbacks, reminding themselves that the trauma is indeed NOT happening to them again.

It would be interesting to experiment with something new to Donnie - an audible cue like a clicker or perhaps a smell like peppermint - to see if you can teach him to "come out" of the flashback. This is me shooting from the hip! But if you introduce something nice and pleasant and sensory-based that has no negative associations and could be used easily w/o touching him during the flashbacks, you might be able to intervene in that way.

In the painting horse diary the owner/trainer wrote about using a red ball and a stick with a big sponge on the end to help DaVinci overcome some of his fears. The ball was an anxiety release - he would lower his head and mouth/toss it, which would calm him, and the stick w/ sponge taught him a whole new way of being asked to go forward (as opposed to being driven by pressure, which was a trigger). She would point the sponge where she wanted him to go and he learned to respond to that signal. She also used clicker and treat combination to teach him. She seems to have been quite successful with these tools.

There was also something about having him climb up on a platform, which seemed to create a new "way" for him to experience some of the things, like touch, that triggered him when he was feet on the ground.

She has a background in NLP and also seems to have a great deal of patience and creativity in her approach, which I'd say are good things for working with trauma as a whole. It can be a very slow, gradual process, with many gains that can seem to be lost during times of stress.

I've been dragging out all my books on trauma this past week and will share more as I have thoughts about this. It's a fascinating topic and so important.

billie said...

And meant to add: definitely go read the diary entries at - she has so much to say about overcoming trauma.

I wish she would write it up and get it published. It's her experience and not a huge "study group" but at least it's working and it presents a framework for folks dealing with abused horses.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Thanks Billie, those are all interesting suggestions. I will pass them along and also read the 'painting horses' experiences. The only thing I wouldn't agree with and I'm sure you don't either, is forcing them into a situation that makes them relive their traumatic experience, even if I knew what started it all. We will just keep on trying to help him until something works. Thanks for your help and keep us posted on anything new you come across.

billie said...

I wouldn't advocate forcing the trauma in any way. One thing I really liked about DaVinci's work is that she always allowed him to escape the training if he desired. She did much of it in a field where he could literally run away if he needed to get distance.

I'm not finding much online about horses and PTSD. Most of what I have found is anecdotal. I intend to continue looking and will share as I come across interesting info.

Rising Rainbow said...

"It is thought that in humans the more trauma experienced the lower the threshold for future trauma," I found this comment to be very interesting since my level of trauma is considered to be extreme but my threshold still seems to remain very high BUT it's the little unimportant things that can set me off.

billie said...

MiKael, what I've written here comes from my own experiences studying trauma and treating trauma victims; I don't presume to generalize this to your personal experience.

Take good care!