Is it possible for horses to suffer from mental illness or autism? My background in human mental health has made this topic quite intriguing for me. A lot of what I do with horses through the Harmony Horsemanship training program brings what I know of positive mental health, resiliency, and overcoming fears and anxieties from the human world into the horse world. Surprisingly enough, horses can go through some of the same emotions as humans, like fear, anxiety, and worry. And the strategies that we use with humans can also be beneficial to horses.
The Harmony Horsemanship Building Confidence program was developed on those same principles and how we tackle those issues. So that is why it may not be so uncommon that horses may experience mental or even autism-like symptoms. We’re not that different when it comes to our neurological system, brain, and hormones, and many of the different pieces in us are also in horses.
I had a conversation with an intermediate rider who is a high-functioning autistic person the other day regarding a horse she was working with. She was pretty certain that this horse was showing signs of autism. She said he was very sensitive and quirky about touch. When it came to saddling, he would notice when things were not done in a certain order or way, and if you touched him when he wasn’t expecting it, he would be overly reactive.
There have also been other instances where I’ve seen horses act highly reactive, alert, and sensitive and have a higher awareness of their different senses. Not to paint every reactive horse with the same brush because there are horses whose personalities are just reactive, but it doesn’t hurt to put that thought through your brain as a potential reason why this horse may be acting this way. Something else to think about is your horse’s happiness and social life. Because horses are social and want to be with other horses, it’s easy to forget that horses are only asleep for about four hours a day. So, not doing anything in a stall for 15 hours a day can be very detrimental to a horse’s mental state. This environment can cause the horse to develop different neurotic behavioural issues like stall walking, biting, cribbing etc.
There are many different ways we can stimulate our horses. If they are in a stall, you can purchase a slow hay feeder to keep their brain stimulated and their bellies full longer; you can also put a toy or a mirror in the stall. Making sure that they get sunlight and time outside and making sure they get to interact with other horses are the best ways to keep your horse happy and healthy.
Being aware of our horses, mental health and readiness in every interaction and riding are essential in the horse’s training and wellbeing. So, if you have a horse that you think is suffering from a lot of anxiety or is overly sensitive, you can keep this in the back of your mind that there is the potential of the horse having some underlining mental issue.
Have you ever worked with a horse that you think might have had a mental illness or mental health challenge like autism? We’d love to hear your story; drop us a line.
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