Rescue Horse Rehab: Step 3

Restoring a horse’s physical and mental health can be challenging but rewarding. The first step is to address the horse's immediate needs.

The arrival of a new horse in your life is always exciting. Acquiring a rescue horse, however, is very different from buying a healthy, sound horse who has had excellent care throughout his life. A rescue horse with an unknown past may behave in surprising ways, and his health may be compromised in ways that can never be fully restored. An owner of a rescued horse recently put it this way, “I guess that is the hard thing about rescue. You never know what is going to happen.” The road ahead may have a few clouds along with that sun, and it may take some unexpected turns.


The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has published and regularly updates Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue and Retirement Facilities. These guidelines provide a road map, which veterinarians follow as much as possible. But each rescue horse is unique. You’ll need to be ready to adapt to each horse’s needs and circumstances. Taking on a rescue horse requires patience and dedication, and it can be one of the most rewarding experiences a horse-person can have. Here’s advice for doing that.


The health needs of a rescue horse are only half the equation. You will also, probably simultaneously, have to contend with behavioral and training issues. Not only is being able to safely handle a rescue horse critical to providing him care immediately after his arrival, but it will serve as a foundation for future training that will help him achieve and maintain a more secure place in the world.

An untrained horse is typically fairly straightforward to teach because he is a clean slate. A rescue horse overcoming past trauma can be difficult to retrain. The memory of the bad experience can stay with him for a lifetime. An untrained horse may need 20 to 30 repetitions to master a task, but a rescued horse may need 200 to 300 repetitions to master the same task willingly and without fear.

Other horses will help with the initial socialization process. Once a horse is out of quarantine and you introduce him to your herd, he will settle into his place in the hierarchy. Be aware, however, that the process isn’t always comfortable to watch. The rest of the horses don’t know his history and aren’t going to treat him gently because of it. The established herd members will always chase the new horse for a period of time. The new herd member may not end up on the bottom, but the horse at the bottom of the current herd is often the one to chase the new one the hardest and for the longest period. This is the natural course of horse socialization in a domesticated environment. In nearly every case, however, things will settle down after four to eight weeks.

As for building trust, your delivering food and water regularly will go a long way for a horse whose needs were not previously met. This approach is easy but can have a wrinkle: A great many rescue horses have mealtime anxiety. It’s easy to understand why—they are worried they may not see another meal, ever, and will protect this one at all costs. This can lead to aggression toward humans and horses around him as he eats. It can also cause the horse to bolt his food, leading to choke. While there are techniques for preventing choke in any horse—such as using specialized feeders to slow intake— the underlying anxiety also needs to be addressed.

To tackle mealtime anxiety, create an environment where the horse feels secure. This might be in a quiet stall at the end of the barn, where he can see and hear other horses, but he feels safe in his own space and does not need to defend his food. It may be best to place the food in the stall and then bring the horse to it. This eliminates pawing, aggression, stall kicking and other unwanted behaviors while the horse is waiting on his meal to be served. However, he might become panicked and unruly while being led to food, particularly in the early days after his rescue. Every situation is different and may change; be prepared to tweak the process as the horse progresses. You will not train a horse to not be food aggressive. You merely manage the situation until he is not.

Which brings us to a word about punishment: Punishment, such as yelling at or hitting a horse in response to unwanted behaviors, is the least effective way to train and is particularly destructive in rescue horses. Punishment of a horse who has a history of abuse is likely to cause him to “shut down” emotionally, which will leave him unable to learn. Instead, the most successful horse trainers use pressure-and-release techniques. The behavioral science term for this is negative reinforcement—removing a stimulus or pressure when the desired behavior is offered. An example is applying pressure with the right rein. When the horse turns his head right in response to that pressure the rider releases the pressure.

Current behavioral science supports positive reinforcement (rubbing the horse or giving him treats) as the primary tool for training. Many successful horsemen incorporate positive reinforcement after a horse has responded appropriately to a pressure-and-release cue. Note: A reward is earned, while a bribe is not. Bribes may work temporarily, such as getting a horse into a trailer by leading him with the grain bucket, but they do not promote appropriate long-term behavior.

As you begin working with the horse, and as he warms up to you, be careful to not romanticize your own role—you are not the only one who can, or should, work with him. A horse who only trusts only one person is at risk. If an emergency occurs and evacuation or medical care is necessary, it is important that the rescue horse be adaptable. Although it is good to establish trust and a relationship with a horse, it is also necessary to establish that others can handle the horse, too.

Read the rest of this series:
Rescue Rehab Step 1
Rescue Rehab Step 2
Rescue Rehab Step 3
Rescue Rehab Step 4 




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