Have you ever seen a horse plodding around an arena, complying with his rider’s wishes, but somehow lifeless? His eyes are dull, he shows no interest in his surroundings, no joy in his work. He tires easily, and his rider must work hard to keep him moving.
Many horses have undergone harsh training practices that frighten them into shutting down. If he misbehaved by jumping around he may have been shanked or smacked. Many horses are frightened and confused by punishment and learn to hold still to avoid pain. A horse may freeze, becoming rigid and holding his breath, or shut off his awareness so he does not notice frightening things going on around him.
These practices do not help a horse cope with domestic life well, as he will always be surrounded by unnatural and possibly frightening things. He has never learned to think, to safely investigate, and then to recognize the item as non-threatening.
Instead, he develops a coping strategy to his stressful life. Anytime he feels frightened he will shut down and become dulled to what is going on around him. Many horses spend a lot of their lives in this shut down place, unaware of the world around them.
This state has unfortunate impacts for the physical health of the horse, as well as the obvious negative mental impact. In Chinese Medicine, the body cannot be healthy without the guidance of the Shen. The Shen can be loosely translated as spirit, and can become disconnected from the body by shock, trauma, or stress. The Shen guides all the systems of the body to create resilient health; when the Shen has been disturbed the body is prone to disease or injury and does not heal easily.
Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to help your horse recover and learn to feel safe in his world. A word of warning, however – a horse who has lived his whole life this way may begin to act like an untrained horse. He may have never spooked in the arena before because he never noticed all the possibly scary objects, shadows or noises before. As he comes back into awareness, he may need support and patient retraining to overcome his fears.
One of the very first techniques I use with any frightened horse is to help them regain a sense of where their body is in space. The tool I use is the TTouch Wand (a white dressage whip). With calm, smooth, intentional movements, I stroke the entire body firmly (to avoid tickling or annoying the horse), making sure to stroke down each leg all the way to the ground. For a horse who is frozen or dissociated this can be an important technique to help them come back into an awareness of their bodies. One of the great advantages of using the Wand is that it is safe for you, keeping your hand and body out of harm’s way. It is also generally well accepted by the horse, as it is not as threatening as a hand touching or possibly grabbing them. I have encountered horses who have been treated harshly by whips, and view my Wand as a threat. If this is the case, I demonstrate to the horse my intentions by stroking my own legs and the legs of their person as well. Keeping the Wand down, making slow and deliberate movements, and approaching slowly is also helpful.
An excellent way of rehabbing shut down horses is to teach games with Clicker Training. I recommend reading up on the basic theory of reinforcement and training with the clicker (as, of course, there is no magic to the tool itself) and start playing with your horse. When you see the spark of recognition in your horse’s eyes, and see his excitement from offering you new behaviors, you will be hooked. This type of positive reinforcement training gives your horse a completely new experience, a sense of agency and choice, and can be the start of a new type of partnership.
The shut down horse is often prone to shallow breathing, or simply holds his breath if he is uncertain or frightened. Acupressure on Conception Vessel 17 (CV17) is indicated to help him relax his ribcage and diaphragm and breathe more deeply. This point also helps to calm the Shen, so will help ease his fear and anxiety.
CV17 is located on the ventral midline (the center line running from between the front legs on the belly), just behind the area of the points of the elbows. Often this is where the girth will be (and this is a great point to use for a girthy horse). This point is easy to find by standing at your horse’s shoulder facing the head, reach under the girth area and find the hollow on the midline right behind the elbows.
Mimulus (Bach) is a flower essence I reach for often to work with frightened horses. It is the essence to ease known fears, such as of dogs, or tarps, or trailers. It can help your horse overcome specific concerns and learn to access his innate courage.
Star of Bethlehem (Bach) flower essence is a remedy to help overcome trauma, helping the Shen come back to rest in the body. Even if the trauma is long in the past, it is helpful to use this essence to restore an animal’s sense of peace and calm.
Yulan Magnolia (Flora of Asia) flower essence helps to restore natural, calm breath pattern when it has been disrupted by fearful events or trauma. This essence is a useful remedy to help restore the Shen.
There are many strategies that can help your horse stay aware and learn to overcome his fears. Much of the Tellington Method and TTouch is useful in these cases, particularly the groundwork exercises. By helping your horse learn to move in awareness of his body and take on new challenges successfully, you will help him to become more confident in trying new things in general. The TTouches are also highly beneficial in helping him release the tension in his body created by fear and helping him to breathe more normally.