Q: Can horses get PTSD?
A: Yes. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in horses is not unlike the condition that you find in people. Mental ‘breakdowns’ are commonplace for horses who have experienced traumatic events.
Horses have memories, which enable them to remember lessons or people from years before, but also painful events. There are quite a few symptoms associated with PTSD in horses. These include poor immune system functioning, depression, digestion issues (such as colic), sudden mood changes and unreasonable aggression.
To help a horse with PTSD requires patience. These horses can be triggered at any time without warning, and whatever the trigger is, it needs to be identified before anything can be done about it. In an article about PTSD in horses, Kerry Thomas writes: “To therapy the issues, each issue or perceived association has to be addressed. We need the trigger to facilitate the transition”.
How this is done, she continues, is not unlike how we might train an undamaged horse, but normally takes more time. Environments need to be created that enable smooth transitions into comfort zones if a situation becomes ‘too much’ for the horse. If the horse reacts negatively to a rake, for example, take the time to ensure a positive connection with the object. Desensitising is a great place to start, and a good routine (feeding time, work time, play time) is a must for any horse suffering from PTSD.
However, there are risks to helping the traumatised horse: “One never knows what will trigger an aggressive reaction in what seem like otherwise gentle, sensible horses,” says Rick Synowski, psychologist and Arabian horse breeder. “These behaviours may subside in time, but one cannot predict whether they will ever go away entirely,” he adds.
This work therefore requires special people, with a willingness to spend the time and effort it takes, to help these horses to truly heal. The goal with these horses has to be entirely unselfish, in that it needs to centre around simply giving them a good quality of life, not turning them into dream riding horses for the average rider.