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Bonding with an abused horse

From: Laura

I run a humane society and have recently seized a horse that was being starved. This horse is a 20 year old gelding who was severely depressed and emaciated with a body score of just 1 on the Hennike body scale. I've had him two months and already he has gained more than 300 pounds and looks terrific. A major court trial is upcoming and I look forward to throwing these people in jail.

My problem is that the horse has been extremely gentle and receptive to everything that I''ve done with him. He is unridable as he still requires major muscle development. He truly is just a pasture ornament and I accept that as all I want to do is let him finish out his life in comfort after everything he's been through. My problem is that tonight, when I went to feed him, he swung his rear around and tried to kick me. I swear it was intentional though an experienced horse friend of mine says he's way too gentle and was probably kicking a fly. Luckily he only got the lixatinic bottle but it has really freaked me out. Why after two months of bonding would he do this? I am not a horseperson and it has taken alot out of me to care for this horse. I am now somewhat fearful of him and don't know how to handle him for fear that he will do it again and actually get me.

Any suggestions as to why this would happen and how I can overcome it would be greatly appreciated. I was planning to keep him but if this keeps up I will have to adopt him out. I really don't want to do that.

Thanks for your help.


Hi Laura! It's wonderful that you were able to rescue this horse, and good luck with the court case - even if the owners don't go to jail, perhaps they can be prevented from owning and abusing any more horses.

I'm sure that you've already had an equine veterinarian look at this horse, but it may be time to repeat the process. There may have been more wrong with this horse than starvation.

When a horse is reduced to a near-skeleton, it will take every bit of that horse's energy just to stay alive, on its feet, and breathing. There may be other things wrong with the horse, and some of them may be painful, but the overwhelming weakness of starvation may keep that horse from showing any indication that it has other problems. Once the horse has regained some much-needed weight, those other problems may surface - and the horse may feel well enough to (a) notice the discomfort and (b) allow observers and handlers to notice the discomfort. A horse that's barely able to stand upright isn't likely to show any noticeable lameness, for instance - that has to wait until it can actually move about. A starving horse that has problems with its digestive system, for example necrotic tissue in the stomach or large or small intestine, won't show evidence of this until it's actually being fed regularly. There are many other possibilities - your vet can probably help you figure out if the horse has more wrong with it than "simple" (and it's rarely that simple) starvation.

Another factor may be personality! When you bring home a horse in that condition, you have no idea of what its personality may be like. Starved, weakened horses are typically all-accepting and utterly quiet. They have to be - they don't have the energy to run away, walk away, or (in extreme cases like this one) even turn their heads away - much less kick or strike. Their acceptance of everything you do for them is much like the acceptance of a hospital patient in a coma - the patient has no choice.

Such an individual, whether horse or human, will be, literally, too weak to resist anything that anyone chooses to do with (or to) it. But as the individual's strength returns through good treatment and nourishment, there may be some surprises in store for the nurses.

A starving horse's basic personality is not going to be apparent - its attitudes, expectations, habits, feelings, and preferences will only begin to appear as the horse slowly returns to health. You've obviously achieved a great deal, since this horse has not only gained a good deal of weight but is now, even with a huge amount of muscle atrophy, able to express himself. That's the good news. The bad news is that this horse will probably not, when healthy, be as sweet and docile and accepting as he was when he was starving. This isn't always the case, and doesn't have to be permanent - horses can be retrained - but here is what you may be seeing: As your horse's strength begins to return, so do his natural horse instincts. Both "flight" and "fight" reactions disappear when a horse is in the pitiful condition you described - a horse like that has "given up" and is basically just waiting to die. If the horse is rescued and fed well, it will become stronger and more alert, and if all goes well, there will come a day when that horse will reassert itself by claiming some personal space - and that may mean telling you (or any other human or animal) to keep your distance and show a little respect!

I don't know what your horse's previous experience with humans has taught him, or how he feels about being handled, but I think you would be safe to assume that his feelings are not very positive. It may be possible to change his feelings and his expectations, but this isn't a job for someone who is new to horses and already feeling intimidated. If you are absolutely determined to keep this horse, then you can try to effect a change, but you will need to be careful, and you will definitely need a lot of help from a good horse trainer who has a thorough understanding of horse physiology and psychology. When a horse is so weak that it accepts all handling from everyone, you cannot even begin to guess how it would behave, or what it would accept, if it were stronger. You also cannot guess what is going on in its mind. Once the horse is stronger, it's important for you to understand (a) how to handle horses in general, and (b) how to "read" this particular horse.

PLEASE get some good help with this. Horses - as you have noticed - are large. When they are healthy, they are very fast, and can be dangerous, especially to people who aren't familiar with horses and don't know how to move and behave around horses. Good will and kindness won't save you from injury if you startle or frighten a horse that is strong enough to kick or bite; it takes experience and close attention to read the body-language signals that come BEFORE actions. The key to working with horses is that you can't expect or demand or feel insulted if you don't get love from them - you need to expect and demand and get RESPECT. Horses need clear leadership, and if you give it to them, they will relax and feel secure around you. But none of this - establishing leadership, reading signals, acting appropriately - is easy for someone who isn't familiar with horses, and it's very risky to try to learn when your only exposure to horse-handling involves a horse whose background, experience, expectations, and personality are completely unknown.

Here's another thought: Not all meek, starved horses are sweet and biddable - or friendly, or even pleasant - when healthy and strong. Some trainers, thoughout history, have resorted to underfeeding or even starving horses into submission. A starved horse is a quiet horse - and "starvation training" is still a reality today. I have seen more than one "riding school" where even the most casual observer could count the ribs on every animal. Starving a horse is also a way to make it docile enough to sell it without having to drug it into a quiet state - yes, it's unethical, but it's not uncommon.

Starved horses may also be abused horses - you won't be able to tell from their docile behaviour. Once they've been fed enough, for long enough, to regain a little strength, they will begin to reassert their own personalities. That's when a savvy horse-owner will begin to evaluate the horse's history and expectations based on its behaviour - and, again, this is where you will need a lot of good help from an experienced and kind trainer.

I think that part of your difficulty right now is that you have certain expectations of this horse, and they aren't realistic. You have fed this horse for two months, but you do not have "two months of bonding" - you have two months of feeding the horse! This is not bonding. It's the horse accepting food - no more, no less. With dogs, providing food DOES create a bond. But food alone does not create the same kind of bond between horse and human. In fact, a horse that's been starved may eat from your hand quietly - but only until it is strong enough to threaten you and chase you away from the hay or grain you gave it! I've seen this, too, especially with humane cases and with Mustangs that had spent too long in BLM pens, having to fight for their hay and their survival.

When it comes to that, here's an analogy that may make sense to you. You've probably rescued a lot of dogs - have you ever met a wolf, or a wolf-dog cross? Although they look like dogs, form packs, raise pups, and do other doglike things, they do not think and react like dogs, and humans who want to handle them must be aware of the differences. The child who teases a dog by offering, then snatching back a treat will eventually annoy the dog, although most dogs will treat the action like a game, at least in the beginning. The child who tries this same "trick" on a wolf or wolf-cross may lose a few fingers - to a wolf, there's no such thing as "teasing". When wolf-dog crosses are brought to humane shelters such as yours, there's generally a story like this behind the owner's decision to give up the animal. And what's hard for the humans in the case - in particular, the parents of the injured child - to understand is that the injury was their fault and their child's fault, not the fault of the animal. The wolf was just being a wolf - not a dog.

This horse is just being a horse - not a dog. Unfortunately, you've got a situation in which an increasingly strong horse with unknown problems is being handled by a human who doesn't know horses. With no ill will on either side - like the child and the wolf - there's still immmense potential for damage.

The real problem you're facing right now isn't anything to do with bonding. The problem you're facing is that you're no longer dealing with the quiet and accepting, submissive and endearing starvation case. You've done a good job with the rescue, and now the horse may need to go to a horseman who can help it learn to like and trust humans, or at least to accept them.

Talk to an equine veterinarian, and have the vet take a good look at the horse's current condition. If there is something physical causing the horse pain, it's time to start to deal with that problem. If there is no overt physical cause of pain, and the vet thinks that you can handle the horse adequately for the time being, then it's time to revise the horse's management. You didn't mention how large your pasture is, but if you have even a few acres with a horse-safe fence, turn the horse out and let him STAY out. The concept of "excess energy" doesn't apply to a starving animal, but a horse that is NOT ill or starving or will begin to bounce off the walls if you keep it confined. Feeding a horse well and keeping it locked in a small box (keeping a horse in a stall is like forcing a medium-sized dog to live in a small dog's crate). Healthy horses move around constantly. Once the vet has given this one a good once-over, turn it out in a safe pasture. If it needs a companion, find one - even a small pony, a donkey, or a goat will do, but horses are gregarious animals and need company. Then, bring in a good trainer to work with both of you. By learning about horses and treating this one with all the respect and consideration that you would give any active, healthy horse that you didn't know, it's possible that you may be able to begin a real bonding process.

If you and your trainer (or you and your vet) decide that the most sensible thing for you to do is to place the horse with someone else, DO IT. It doesn't mean that you've failed - on the contrary, it means that you have brought a dying animal back to health, and made it ready to start a new and better life with someone who loves and understands horses. You've done a great thing, and you should pat yourself on the back. And since you run a humane shelter, you already know that you can't keep 'em all! Your vet should be able to help you find a trainer to work with you and the horse if you decide that you really must keep it; if not, he may be able to help you place the horse in a more suitable home. Either way, good luck!


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