In my work as an animal communicator I see the problem through the eyes of the animal, not as a trainer. If a horse has been abused, but treated well now, we humans think he should understand that no one is going to hurt him now, and therefore he should be nice to us.
As a prey animal, a horse instinctively knows that he must always defend himself. If he has been treated harshly in the past and now sees a hand coming toward him, his fight or flight instinct will surface. If he is in his stall and cannot flee he may choose to bite or kick at his “attacker.” The person behind the hand coming at him might simply have the intention of unhooking a lead shank from the halter, but to the horse it is an old sign of danger and pain. He will instinctively defend himself.
A mare who has been abused will teach her babies to react the way she would in the face of danger. You then have a “mean” horse that has never been hurt by humans, but reacts as if he has.
Look at the behavior of herd horses. The lead mare has to keep everyone in line to maintain her status of being in charge since she is responsible for the safety of the herd. She acts swiftly with teeth or hooves to enforce the rules. These rules are of the utmost importance in the wild. They can mean the difference between life and death.
It is important to talk to the animals. Animals – and small children -- think in pictures. There are no pictures for negative words such as: not, don’t, can’t, won’t, never. “No” is a negative word but is quite often used firmly and alone as a sentence, and therefore the animal learns what it means without the picture.
Since the negative words do not register, the sentence, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,” would come through as, “Worry, I’m going to hurt you” -- not the message you wish to covey. Your words should be, “You are safe, I am going to help you.” Try this the next time you take your dog or cat to the vet’s office. Explain what is going to happen (nothing is worse than the fear of the unknown). Tell him that an injection will sting for a short time, but it will get him well and keep him healthy. If there is to be surgery, tell him that he will fall asleep and that is okay; he will wake later and start to heal. Explain if there will be pain and that it will become less and finally go away.
For the horse that tries to bite the hand on his lead shank: tell him that you are going to untie him, that he is safe, and that he must be gentle with you. Have a quiet conversation with him and handle him gently. Be careful and keep your own safety in mind at all times. It may take a while for the horse to come to trust you, if ever, depending on the treatment he has had in the past.
I try to maintain my role as lead mare with my own horses. One is very sweet and a follower, while the other gives new meaning to the word “attitude.” BB, the attitude girl, sometimes will challenge me with ears back or a head shake. My response is to stand straight, shoulders back, step into her space and imagine my ears back and my 5’4” height as 6’4”. She always lowers her head and takes a couple of steps away, apologizing as she goes. Of course the apology is in the form of, “Oops, sorry,” but that is okay with me.
As you work with any animals that have suffered abuses and see them begin to relax and trust, there is a healing of all the spirits involved. When a horse chews because he understands, or a dog or cat comes to be touched, I feel a sense of relief and serenity come over me as well.
Anita Curtis is the author of ANIMAL WISDOM, How to Hear the Animals. Learn more at www.anitacurtis.com