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Equine PTSD?  Think that's the silliest thing you've ever heard? Bear with me and keep reading - you may just change your mind...                                                                             
I'm Just Theorizing Here...

What if horses suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just as people do?  Have you ever heard someone say, "I don't know what happened; he just went crazy!" when recounting a wild ride on a "spooked" horse?  One that threw them?   Or witnessed a seemingly spontaneous 
"meltdown" on the ground?  I have, lots of times.  Well what if it wasn't just a spook? What if it was something much bigger?  Let's look at the definition of PTSD as outlined by the
US Department of Veteran's Affairs:

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening.

Somewhere in the middle of posting Shadow's page this whole thing hit me (hard).  Now I'm not a doctor, nor do I claim to be some frighteningly brilliant individual - I will admit, however, to a defective "off" switch on the brain (a friend once told me I have entirely too many thoughts :o)  I am not attempting to make light of this issue or make jokes; to the contrary, if you stop and think it through carefully it makes total sense.  We know that horses are highly sensitive creatures (emotional, if you will) and can be extremely empathetic in their intuitiveness ~ when viewed that way, it's really not much of a leap.

I'm going to use Shadow's history and our own personal experience to illustrate my point...you have to factor in, however, that at the time we purchased him, we knew absolutely nothing about the
TWH show industrysoring or stewarding a horse (believe me, now we do!)

A Bit of Background


Shadow and Champ (both Tennessee Walking Horses) were 8 1/2 years old when we got them.  They had been living together waaaay out in the country for about 2 years before we came along.  Nice, quiet - no traffic - country living.  We had been told by their owner that he had purchased the two horses together from a woman in Florida who had them for about a year.  She had gotten Shadow around the age of 5 from "a big show farm" where he had been used for showing and as their stud.  Unable to control him, however, the woman had him gelded (this did not solve the problem, of course, so she then sold him to the man we got him from).  So here is his history as we knew it at the time of purchase:

  •     Birth - Age 4 on a large Walking Horse horse farm used for show and at stud
  •     Age 5 - 6 owned by a woman in Florida who had him gelded
  •     Age 6 - 8 1/2 owned by a farmer in rural Alabama

Try Before You Buy, Right?

Wanting to be sure, we made 3 or 4 trips out to this farm to see Shadow, rode him, groomed him, spent enough time there that we felt confident this was a nice, quiet horse for us to own.  The farmer and his wife were getting older, and his grandson had lost interest in riding them, so he was selling both horses.  Of course being a couple of soft touches, we bought Champ too (didn't have the heart to separate them :o) and made arrangements for the farmer to deliver both horses.

Beginning to Unravel

It took that poor man
two hours to load Shadow into the trailer; I see this as one of the contributing factors leading to his eventual meltdown, (a total change in environment being another).  I believe that in Shadow's mind, Shadow + Trailer = BAD THINGS (I remember the farmer being absolutely baffled by Shadow's adamant refusal to load; especially after Champ jumped right on in).  Over the next couple of weeks, we did some casual riding around the pasture and he seemed fine other than being kind of tense and easily spooked.  The biggest problem I had was trying to clean his feet; he was most uncooperative and very reluctant to pick them up.  He would, after several minutes of soft encouraging words and lots of patience pick them up, but it was usually accompanied by a nervous snort or two and he would remain extremely tense until his foot was back on the ground (of course now I understand that part, too). 

The Setting

We had temporarily set up a hitching post of sorts, until we could build them outdoor stalls.  At the rate Shadow gobbled his feed, he was also able to polish off Champ's, so we ended up tying them at opposite ends for meals.  Since horses are rather large, Rickey had used heavy timbers in a long "H" and had put rings to tie the horses on the posts above and to one side of their buckets.  We always stayed around there, because it just didn't seem like a very good idea to walk off leaving 2 horses tied up (although I know people do it "all the time").


The Meltdown


One afternoon, while they were eating I thought I would rake up some of the leaves that were all over the grass by the hitching post.  I picked up the rake intending to show Shadow (so I didn't scare him) before I started working.  The second I picked up the rake and turned to face him, he exploded.  He let out a horrid scream, reared straight up and threw himself backwards hard enough to snap that heavy post like it was a twig.  What I saw next was even more frightening: Shadow, who was rolling his eyes and snorting wildly, had scrambled backwards still attached to the ring on the broken post. The additional center piece of wood, which was now splintered, was pointing straight out towards the opposite post
with Champ still attached!  I'm pretty sure my heart stopped for a moment here.  After considerable time, I was able to approach Shadow (who was shaking head to toe) and my daughter went to Champ to unhook them before anyone was physically hurt. 

The Aftermath


It was a very very close thing, but I didn't sell him.  Looking back, knowing what I know now, it's a wonder that he didn't just keel over from a heart attack (poor guy).  We "started all over again", my Shadow and I.   I was very careful about rakes and shovels; anything that had a handle and it was a long time before I attempted tying him again.  I'm glad we didn't sell him as I would have missed out on a wonderful horse; and I credit Shadow's generous heart and willing spirit for much of his recovery. 


The Moral of the Story

Even if you think you know a horse's history, there can be any number of things that are missing from the equation.  Horses carry emotional/mental baggage just as people do and scar tissue can definitely hide a still open wound on the heart. 
Anytime a horse that has been traumatized in the past is placed in a new environment, there is usually some regression. These horses benefit most when given a much longer period of adjustment.

Having read through so many of the training methods employed by the Walking Horse Industry to generate that desired "
big lick", I would definitely classify that as traumatic and life threatening as viewed through the eyes of a horse. Add in the rake as a trigger and the resulting meltdown as a flashback and what do you get? PTSD pure and simple.

Still having doubts? Read this definition from About:Depression and see if anything I highlighted rings a bell...

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Examples are combat, rape and natural disasters.  There are three major types of PTSD symptoms. First, the traumatized person generally develops a heightened startle response and easy arousability and irritability. This change in mood and startle is relatively permanent and biological in nature, as if the traumatized person's nervous system has been 'reset'. Second, they are vulnerable to having memories of the trauma come flooding back into their minds at unexpected moments (flashbacks). Third, they will go to great lengths to avoid thinking about the trauma. These avoidance measures vary from not going near anything that reminds them of the trauma to dissociation.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm....Makes you think, doesn't it

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