Q: I'm hoping for any information I can get about the emotional rehabilitation of horses coming to rescues from abusive situations. Our (rescue) horses are not ridden and are likely to be with us for life so there is no training agenda. Still, we have some behaviors that I wonder about.

Three of our horses exhibit extreme separation anxiety when apart from their pasturemates. This goes beyond the label "herd-bound." There is serious agitation including sweating. Two of them can somewhat manage grooming sessions on their own but are quite visibly stressed despite treat rewards and gentle handling. The third seems literally traumatized if friends are not brought in with her. With the only aim being their happiness and well-being, do we continue to accommodate or try to wean them off of this dependence? Is this extreme version of herd behavior a common result of abuse/neglect?

Also, ground manners are a problem. Only one of these horses can be cross-tied. The other two have to be groomed in their stalls. I tried to work on that problem a while ago, but by myself I can either acclimate them to the cross-ties or groom them, and there is never enough time for a session of both. I admit, too, that we still have problems with two of the horses standing for the farrier and the vet. One always requires an intramuscular injection of Ace (Acepromazine, a sedative) for the farrier to do his work and rears repeatedly during veterinary treatment.

I don't know whether, or how much, to push them beyond their comfort zone after all they have been through.

Sarah Freidah, via e-mail


A: You pose a very interesting set of questions. Here in our behavior clinic and laboratory (at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine), this general topic--common traits of rescued horses--has come up from time to time. Although we discuss some of these issues, we have no real evidence-based answers as to the cause and effect relationships. So what I can share are mostly thoughts based on experience and discussion with colleagues interested in behavior.

I am not sure what you include in the category of rescue horses. Since you mention abusive situations, I'll assume you mean horses that have been mishandled or mistreated by their human handlers, as opposed to those just suffering neglect from a feeding and health care standpoint.

We have, if fact, seen horses that we know had a history of not being treated respectfully by handlers and that have seemed unusually bonded to herdmates. One interpretation we have pondered is whether these horses have become fearful of people and, therefore, panic when left alone with people, or if they have learned to associate bad things happening to them when they were separated from the herd.

As far as the approach to take for the well-being of the animal, if you are pretty sure you will never have to keep these horses separated from the other horses, then I would probably recommend not pushing it to try to wean them from that dependency. If it was really intense, I would probably try to find the horse a trusted companion, even a stallmate such as a small pony, that can go everywhere with that horse.

Another method that can work fairly well with some horses that suffer separation anxiety is the installation of a stall mirror. These are specially designed nonbreakable mirrors. Some horses will buddy up with the image in the mirror and appear to gain social consolation when separated from other herdmates. These mirrors can be installed such that they can be easily moved with the horse if necessary (e.g., into a trailer or to the veterinary clinic). An equine behavior research group, led by Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, CBiol, MIBiol, ILTM, MRCVS, at Lincoln University in England, published data on effectiveness of stall mirrors for reducing weaving in horses. The brand of stall mirror available in the United Kingdom is the Lincoln Stable Mirror, and the proceeds benefit their program. In the United States we have had difficulty obtaining the Lincoln Mirror, but have been able to obtain a similar product under the name Stall Buddy. For more information on Mills' study and using mirrors to reduce stable vices, see www.TheHorse.com/5644.

I should mention that we also seem to recognize another type of behavior common to horses that have suffered abusive handling. Some of these animals, when treated respectfully and cared for in a consistently nonconfrontational manner for a while, seem to accept and bond to these new handlers in a very characteristic way that caretakers recognize.

At first, a horse that appears very wary of all people (i.e., head shy and "turn butt" fearful) often reaches a point where he clearly transitions from fear responses to behavior that can be described as "relief," where the horse is suddenly very friendly and cooperative. In the barn here we refer to it as the "Where have you been all my life?" shift in attitude. It's a welcomed stage in rehabilitation, and it often starts with the horse's one main caretaker--the person who brings the feed and hay and dependably takes the horse in and out for turnout and exercise. At that point we try to gradually expose the horse to not just the one or two new regular caretakers, but to many different people, with the hope of having the horse generalize the "relief" attitude to all, or at least most, people. We do this carefully and slowly, initially trying to have people remain consistent, but eventually trying to build in more realistic variation in handling style and behavior. We really don't think it fair to reinforce the one-person horse.

For the ground manners problems--there, too, we have seen some horses that we know for sure had been physically abused by handlers that take a long time to be comfortable in restraint such as cross-ties or even a single tether or examination stocks. We usually interpret it as fear of restraint, probably a rational fear based on the horse's aversive experiences while restrained. Whether or not and how hard we try to help the horse overcome that presumed fear usually depends upon, just as you suggest, where we expect the horse to go and to do for the rest of his life. For horses such as yours that are struggling with farrier and veterinary procedures, we recommend, and have had very good success with, simple positive reinforcement-based behavior modification, shaping the behavior we need by reinforcing and distracting with food rewards each increment of compliance.

Careful evaluation of these horses typically reveals that the restraint is the major factor and often the entire problem. So we deliberately back off on restraint and switch to a positive motivational state. This is most effective if you have a team (handler and veterinarian or farrier) that is experienced with rehabilitating procedure avoidance. Firsthand knowledge of the timing and schedule of reinforcement, the positioning of the horse and people, and the expectations for and recognition of progress can exude relaxed confidence to the horse and the team that greatly increases safety and success.

For more information on these techniques, read a related behavior column on positive reinforcement at www.TheHorse.com/9911.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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