What about a horse that has a history of abuse and a troubled past. Should you treat them any differently? Are there special things you do with a horse like this?

When a horse comes out of a neglectful or traumatic environment, they are typically skittish, unsure, and reluctant to trust a human. Who can blame them? Their memories are filled with bad experiences which have shaped their current behavior. 

The game plan should be to offset those bad experiences with enough good experiences to outweigh the bad ones. The time frame of success will depend not only on how traumatized the horse has been, but also on the quality of the human’s approach.

The Wrong Ways To Approach An Abused Horse

The tendency is to treat an abused horse with kid gloves. You know they are spooky, so you sneakily tip toe around and try not to do anything to make them bothered. The problem is that the horse will sense your unsureness and that will make him even more unsure. 

The worst thing you can do is avoid the things that cause the horse anxiety. For example, he doesn’t like being approached from the left, so you only approach from the right. That will only prolong the cure.

The other end of the spectrum would be to not consider the horse’s current lack of confidence. For example, quickly walk up to the horse and attempt to brazenly throw the saddle blanket on without breaking it down into pieces he can handle.

Read more about the technique of Mashing Your Horse.

The Best Way To Approach An Abused Horse

The most effective approach would be to have the mindset of, “I know you’re unsure. I will work at the level you are at, but we’re not going to stay there. You’re going to be fine. You will learn to be trusting, brave and confident. I will not put you in a situation you have no way out of”.  

Plan Of Action

For some horses, just exposing them a little to noodles, balloons, or tarps like people typically do may be helpful to get them to ignore or be okay with a certain object. But horses with a troubled past usually need more convincing.

Learn more about Desensitizing.

Let’s go back to the blanket scenario. The previously abused horse is afraid of the human approaching with a saddle blanket. When you attempt to put the blanket on his back, he jumps sideways. So you retreat and the blanket goes away. The horse has learned that evading the blanket makes it go away. So what do you suppose he will do the next time you approach with the blanket?

Building bravery into the horse requires a different approach. You casually approach with the blanket and smoothly attempt to put it on his back. Your approach hasn’t overloaded him so much that he jumps and rears. But it makes him a little unsure so he moves sideways. At this point you don’t take the blanket away, but you don’t do any more with it either. You go with the horse as he moves and when he shows any sign of bravely settling down, you take it away. Then start again. 

This type of approach will train a troubled horse to be brave. When he shows confidence, the object goes away. Use this same concept for anything the horse seems unsure about.

Watch my Desensitizing A Horse To Water video for a visual example of how this works.

What Does Your Horse Need?

It’s been way overstated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The key to a confident horse is for the human to be a good communicator. Every horse is searching for a leader. Horses are wired to follow a leader. They feel lost without one. It’s in their DNA. 

The better you can get at teaching your horse to lunge, be caught, trailer load, be mounted, be saddled, travel on a loose rein, back up, turn … the list doesn’t end, the more confident he will be. It’s all interconnected. 

Once they become confident that we are good enough leaders to keep them out of trouble, things become much easier. The spookiness, tenseness, and inconsistency melts away.

Listen to my PODCAST about Abused Horses With A Troubled Past.

Learn to carry on a conversation with your horse. The more you communicate with him in a way he can understand, the more sure he will be in all his interactions with you. Then his good memories will offset the bad and his traumatic past will no longer be a factor.

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Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.