Proud horse or poor creature? How to recognize and resolve trauma – An essay by Sabine Birmann

Not too long ago, we had a very special seminar. It was one of few seminars where none of the horses were traumatized. Although two of the horses had been previously traumatized, they had been able to work through their trauma, thanks to the trauma “work” done by their owners. I recently read a comment about our work, asking: “it seems like all the horses here are always traumatized – is that even possible?” Sadly, it is. Not all horses, but many of them arrive at a seminar in such a state, and I often ask myself why this is the case. On average, out of the six horses at a seminar, at least three are more or less traumatized. Some of them are so heavily traumatized that it takes years to free them from it. Once you learn to do so, it is quite easy to recognize a traumatized horse. When faced with a trigger, they present with stress and fear behaviors. Triggering situations or objects could be going into the arena, the presence of jumps, seeing a whip, being tacked up, or the presence of a certain person. Some horses will literally “freeze” when faced with a trigger, and often the trauma will be legible in their facial expressions. In extreme cases it will seem as if the horse is psychologically and physically breaking down. Other horses will “leave” the situation, recognizable by their eyes becoming distant, and the horse appearing to be somewhere else, akin to humans becoming dissociative in order to separate themselves from the traumatic event. Even if these horses have new owners who treat them well, these trauma reactions will repeat themselves when the triggers are present. Most horses will become partially traumatized due to difficult events that are connected to a certain environment, certain props or tools, or people. However, severely traumatized horses consistently present “abnormally” in their reactions and behaviors, whether or not a trigger is currently present. Horses whom we like to label as being “difficult” are also often the ones most severely traumatized. In those cases, horse owners often turn to horse trainers for help. If these trainers use dominance and pressure to force those horses into compliance, these horses will magnify their “difficult” behaviors before they “break.” Physically and psychologically breaking a horse will, in the worst case, lead to a horse’s early death. They will often present with weakened immune systems, repeated colic resulting from constant and severe stress, and/or will injure themselves repeatedly until they die naturally or are put down. An individual becomes traumatized when they are subjected to a deeply distressing or disturbing situation or experience, and are no longer able to use strategies to cope with what they are experiencing. No matter what they do, they are unable to change their circumstances, and are made to feel humiliated, threatened, and without individual agency. Horses become traumatized when they are degraded, and objectified. This can be observed in most areas of the horse world, whether it be in show barns, riding schools, dude ranches, or recreational riding barns. In these environments, mutual communication between horses and their owners is unheard of, or at best is seen as an annoyance to be dealt with or “figured out.” Most natural horsemanship methods are just as traumatizing for the horses, depending on how dedicated their owners are to perfecting these practices. In any case, the horses must do as they are told, and should follow their owner’s every wish, no matter how nonsensical the request might be. Horses are forced to become servants without a voice, instead of being allowed to “speak” and share how they are feeling. The severity of a horse’s trauma depends on the type of horse, how old they are, as well as the duration and intensity of the negative experiences the horse was subjected to. A very sensitive, low ranking horse will become traumatized much faster than a more confident horse with a strong personality. Trauma can also stem from extreme neglect, through which a horse has experienced a threat to their physical existence due to withdrawal of food or water. Real trauma is recognizable, because it is not a passing change in the horse’s mood, but something that has a lasting impact on a horse’s physical body and psyche. Almost all horses possess a high level of social intelligence, and have emotional experiences similar to ours. They are capable of communication, empathy, grief, and happiness. Despite many years of criticism, this has recently been confirmed through published research. And yet, when visiting the average stable or reading the average thread on social media, the conversations continue to go something like this: “You have to tell him what’s up, otherwise he’ll just do what he wants…” or “just get rid of the b*tch, it’s no use to keep trying…” or, “you see, this is why we use whips! At least he’s jumping now…” (comment overheard while a famous showjumping trainer was giving a young girl and her 4 year old horse a lesson). And it just keeps going: “He has to do as I say, and if he resists, he will find out who’s boss!” (Comment written by a 14 year old girl on YouTube, who describes herself as a competitive rider). A well-known western trainer told a woman with a two year-old horse: “You have to start them young, so they aren’t strong enough to resist yet…” It’s as if horses were calculating monsters, who are out to make our lives difficult through constant resistance. Instead, as soon as we change our perspective, we will find that horses are desperately fighting for their physical and psychological integrity. They develop strategies that help them cope with uncomfortable situations, and we simply perceive these strategies to be a sign of defiance. Once a horse gives up; once they are “broken”, they are a fraction of what they used to be. What’s left are degraded creatures forced into servitude – shadows of their former selves, glimpses of which can perhaps only be seen as they gallop across their fields during short moments of freedom. Once horses come into conventional training (this includes natural horsemanship, clicker training, etc.), all the experience is pressure. If they resist, perhaps because their backs are hurting, or because something is uncomfortable for them, they are punished. At best, this punishment is done with the trainers voice and results in repeating specific movements again and again. In the worst case they are punished with food deprivation so they aren’t so “crazy” or “strong” and are less likely to resist. Even what might be considered to be “nice” owners force their horses to perform senseless movements or tasks, ride with saddles that don’t fit, and play horsemanship games with their horses, just because they believe that since everyone else is doing these things, they must be doing it right. TV channels watched by thousands of people regularly broadcast programs depicting horse trainers practicing methods designed to strip horses of their last bit of free will and integrity, and people are applauding this without any critical afterthought. No one, not once, thinks about asking why the horse is resisting or refusing. If these methods don’t work, then it ends up being the horses’ fault, and I’ve experienced first hand that these trainers recommended for horses like these to be given away to slaughter. However, most often these are the horses that are especially sensitive, intelligent, and noble, and were driven to fight against their owners out of pure and utter despair. When humans are treated in ways comparable to how these horses are treated, they develop incredibly deep and severe trauma. Next time you attend a horse show, lesson, or clinic, begin to observe what you see there. Look those horses in the eyes; take in their facial expressions, how they carry themselves, and observe their behavior. Imagine yourself as one of those horses. How would you feel? The point is not to come up with excuses like, “oh, but I have to work for a living as well” etc. – a horse cannot just quit and walk away, they cannot get a divorce, or get themselves a new owner who is more understanding. Despite horses being of greater intelligence than we give them credit for, this does not mean they understand what you do to earn money for their upkeep. Especially horse owners often tend to suppress critical thought to justify their behavior, but this just fosters a continued partial awareness of the situation. Horses like people, because they are interesting. Horses are curious; and at times they might test some limits, because they want to be able to respect their person, and communicate authentically with them. Horses are capable of forming a deep friendship with their two-legged counterpart. They enjoy spending time with their human friend, and this can include engaging things like groundwork, or riding outside with two comfortable pads and a natural riding style – something that most horses find interesting and enjoyable rather quickly. If horses trust us and have a good relationship to us as their owners, they will also accept things like longer visits from the veterinarian, or standing still for the farrier. Within a good relationship, horses will forgive our mistakes, accept it when we need to set a boundary, and will even make compromises if they like their owners a lot. Therefore, it takes a lot to traumatize horses! If such a relationship exists between horses and their people, trauma can be processed together, and can be replaced with new, positive experiences over time. It is not enough to just turn your traumatized horses out into the field. Successful trauma therapy does not avoid the trigger, but instead interrupts the horses’ learned behavior pattern based on the trigger. Once the owner reacts differently towards the horse in a previously traumatizing situation, thus not playing into the horses’ learned trauma pattern, the horse will slowly begin to trust this person, and will start to open up and grieve, thus processing their trauma. Careful! By doing this, we take away the horses’ protective strategy. Therefore, we should be able to ensure that the horse will not return to their old circumstances. Trauma therapy is intense, and it hurts, because we can feel the horses’ emotions and suffer with them as they grieve and process these experiences. This is something the owner needs to be aware of before engaging in this process. Due to the mirror neurons both horses and humans possess, we are able to feel the horses’ emotions intensely, and I often experience that those who are present during these sessions will spontaneously burst into tears as the horses open up and share some of their pain. These trauma sessions do not follow a certain method. They happen naturally when the horse and owner are ready, and are always marked by intense emotions. The psychological state of the horse obviously improves after each one of these sessions, and often horses will chew and yawn several times depending on how much of their past trauma they were able to, or had to, let go. Please be careful not to confuse this yawning and chewing with the yawning seen when a horse is tired, or the licking and chewing caused by negative stress! After a successful trauma session, a horse’s eyes should appear clearer and larger, their face will often appear more mature, and their physical posture will be more upright. This first phase of processing and releasing trauma can take quite long, depending on how deep the trauma is. Afterwards, the horses become affable again, and are often even rideable. After reaching this point, some horses will then fall back into a second phase of trauma release, where they revert to their original behaviors, showing all of the anger, frustration, and fear they’ve experienced. This is part of the healing process, and shows that the horse is willing to communicate again. During this phase, it is important to remain calm and understanding, and to communicate through body language and presence that there is no longer a reason for them to behave this way. Once the owners show that they understand what the horses are saying and are taking the horses seriously, and the horses understand that they won’t experience anything bad due to their behavior, the true nature of each individual horse will surface. Now they can be just as they were when they were born – when they were unbroken. And just like a young, curious horse, they will engage with their people, and are willing to learn and experience new things together with them. Horses previously believed to be extremely difficult are often unrecognizable, and become wonderful companions – this has been proven to me by 20 years of trauma therapy with horses. Many course participants will shed a tear after witnessing the transformations of these horses, from being misunderstood servants to becoming proud, happy, and sociable individuals. It is important to note that our involvement in this is only a small part of these processes, much like a catalyst. Without the perseverance, patience, and most of all the love these owners have for their horses, this work would not be possible. Therefore, in the name of all the horses owned by these wonderful people, thank you! By sticking with your horses, and going through this together, you provide hope and inspiration to those around you!

With best wishes, Sabine Birmann


There is an image gallery attached to this text on our Facebook-Page – please click on the image to be redirected:

He showed a trauma that he can finally let go. It was noticeable from the beginning, his fighting and refusing in the arena, his wrinkled nose and tension. He constantly tried to escape, and the riding arena and the rope work was the trigger for the trauma. However, as his owner caught up with him and released the rope after only one round, she broke through the familiar pattern and he was finally able to mourn.

If you want, you can see scenes with the traumatized pony and the difficult “unridable” mare Blanka in this clip – this Clip “life” is a pure memory clip from Alina: