Q&A: Caring for the emotional needs of a healing horse

This helpful Q&A is designed to help you look beyond the physical needs of your healing horse in order to cater to his emotional wellbeing.

Unfortunately, there are times in most horse’s lives where they find themselves recovering from injuries, disease, or one of many acute or chronic conditions that can affect their physical wellbeing. In addition to the proper first aid, veterinary care, medicines, supplements, and management of the physical aspects of healing, it’s also important to consider horses’ emotional needs during these times of stress. Often, it’s necessary to alter or modify a horse’s normal routine of feeding, turn out, and exercise to accommodate physical healing, and these modifications can cause stress and have a negative effect on emotional wellbeing.

So, how to we minimize this stress? How do we balance a horse’s physical needs with his emotional needs while healing? This Q&A-style discussion will help sift through some of the nuances of this sometimes tricky process, and offer some helpful tips and considerations to pull from should you find yourself in the position of caring for a healing horse.

Q: My horse was prescribed stall rest by my vet. What can I do to provide proper stimuli during this time?

A: This is a common occurrence, and there are several simple things to consider that will account for your horse’s needs and ward off boredom and stress as much as possible.

First, make sure your horse has access to appropriate forage at all times. An empty digestive system can cause physical problems that can lead to emotional stress and unwanted behaviors. Consider mixing a few types of hay for variety (after checking with your vet for any restrictions or recommendations), and feeding from different nets, feeders, hay pillows, or other feeding systems that encourage a bit of maneuvering, moving from place to place, or problem solving to access forage. This can also be done with complete/senior feeds if your horses is not allowed hay, or also with a small amount of treats to encourage seeking and exploration.

Do your best to account for the “three Fs” of equine wellness – Freedom (safe and appropriate movement), friends (familiar and trusted companions), and forage (steady availability without having to compete).

Second, having companions is important in minimizing emotional stress. Arrange for your horse to at least be able to see and hear other horses at all times. This may look like keeping a friend or friends in nearby stalls or turn out areas. Even better is allowing your horse opportunities to physically touch a trusted herd mate. This may look like a shared fence line (if he is allowed a small paddock or pen outside), adjoining stalls with a low partition or bars rather than a solid, high divider, or making time for stall front visits from a quiet horse friend who is on lead.

Third, once forage and friendship needs are accounted for, consider the addition of frequent visits from trusted and calm human companions that include hanging out, grooming, or even a bit of simple clicker or trick training that is safe given the small space and any physical restrictions as per the vet.  If you have a particularly curious and busy horse, you may want to rotate through safe toys or other novel items for your horse to investigate. Research enrichment ideas for horses that safely fit your horse’s circumstances.

Q: My horse has been on extended stall rest. He is stressed and so am I! My horse is picking up on my emotions, right? How can I keep my nerves, worries, and negative emotions from making the situation worse?

A: The best thing to do here is be honest. His healing process is stressful for you both. Negative emotions are likely running high and we can’t hide our emotions from our horses, nor should we. It’s important to know that your horse is more comfortable with you being honest and up front about how you feel, even if that is worried, stressed, sad, or scared, than he is if you show up trying to pretend you’re calm, confident, and happy when you’re not. Horses will feel safer with someone who is congruent (emotions, body language, and energy that all match) than with someone who is incongruent (feeling one way but trying to come across as something else).

That being said, work through your own emotions in a way that will serve both of you without causing harm, additional stress, or risk your safety. For example, if you are scared to hand walk your stall-rested horse, find practices that make the task less scary. You could ask a more confident and less emotionally invested person to hand walk your horse. Or, maybe plan to have a familiar and quiet equine companion join him during his walk, or ask your veterinarian about natural calming remedies that may make the experience physically safer for both of you if your horse is in an explosive emotional state. If you are sad, it’s okay to cry, vent, or journal about your feelings – they are understandable given the circumstances! If you are frustrated or anxious, find a trusted friend or professional to brainstorm solutions to your challenges or give you a realistic perspective on those worst-case scenarios that plague your thinking. Remember, too, that you can always pause and take a breath.

Q: I have a rescue horse with chronic health issues including recurring abscesses, allergies, and arthritis. Sometimes I must limit her movement to keep her comfortable, limit exposure to environmental factors that she’s allergic to, and keep her separate from the other horses to keep her safe. The things I do seem to help her physically but at times cause stress emotionally. When do you draw the line to let a horse be a horse? When do I prioritize emotional wellbeing over physical wellbeing when the physical care takes an emotional toll on my horse?

A: This is a nuanced and dynamic situation that is best navigated with common sense, creativity, persistence, a trusted team of professionals, and a constant awareness of what your horse is communicating to you. Physical and emotional wellbeing are interconnected and can be difficult, if not impossible, to separate from each other. There is no black and white answer, but there are a few important considerations to keep in mind.

Become educated about equine body language and use the feedback you receive from your horse as a guide.

Do your best to account for the “three Fs” of equine wellness while he’s healing – Freedom (safe and appropriate movement), friends (familiar and trusted companions), and forage (steady availability without having to compete). These have both physical and emotional implications. You may need to get creative and develop several different options to choose from depending on her restrictions from day to day.

Build a network of trusted professionals to consult with that can help you weigh the changing pros and cons, brainstorm solutions, and guide you to the best decisions on behalf of your horse. These may include vet, farrier, behaviorist, bodyworker, animal communicator, etc.

Last but not least – listen to your horse! Become educated about equine body language and use the feedback you receive from your horse as a guide. He will tell you when a situation, circumstance, or method is tipping the scales towards stress or calm. I would recommend learning about trigger stacking in horses so you can recognize and mitigate the buildup of stressors during his healing process.