Social Rehabilitation

WildSometimes in rescue you may hear us say that medical rehab is easier than social rehab.  However, social rehab may be more rewarding.  It is time consuming, long, and takes the patience of Job–but when all is said and done a life will be changed, and you will have forged a bond stronger than any you have ever done before.  You will also gain personal confidence in yourself through the eyes of the horse.

Socialization rehab starts with the load.  When you know you need to pick up an unhandled horse pre-planning can make a world of difference.  You’ll need supplies–round pen panels, fence feeder, horse feed, and a stock trailer.  Set out a catch pen about a week before you need to load the horse.  6 panels is usually perfect for this.  If you have a gate–great.  If not, just swing a panel as a gate.  You’ll want to start putting the horse feed on a fence feeder INSIDE the catch pen.  Keep it open so the horse can come and go.  If it is hay feeding season then the hay goes in the catch pen, too.  You want the horse to associate the catch pen of being a happy place to eat.

A few panels that the horse can eat in; which can be closed to secure him/her on a large field is essential.

A few panels that the horse can eat in; which can be closed to secure him/her on a large field is essential.

A week has gone by, and the fearful horse probably walks to the pen every time they see you now.  They know when you come to that pen that groceries happen.  Right now the horse looks at you and says, “Meals on Wheels has arrived”.  They don’t associate you with good or with bad…they just associate you as their waiter or waitress.  Today is load day.  When the horse enters the catch pen you will close it.  They will then be trapped, and their anxiety will spike.  Your friends will need to join you on this day. You’ll need 3 or 4 people.  More than 5 will be too many, and will create added, unneeded anxiety for the horse.  Back the trailer up to the panels.  You’ll need to think about dimensions and scale here because you need to be able to open the trailer door and open the panel.  Every trailer is different–the bottom line is you need to be able to close the trailer once the horse is on, and you don’t want to create an escape route.

The fearful horse will want to be away from you, so some rear pressure with a carrot stick or longe rope will typically drive them onto the trailer, which becomes a safe place where the scary humans won’t harm them.  If they run right on, great. You are loaded and can close the door and head home.  If they don’t, then you may have to start shrinking the catch pen–and remember to have patience.  FOOD will not get  a scared horse to load.  Instinct is fight or flight.  Desire is food.  Instinct always wins over desire.

The load is just the beginning of a long journey.  Once you get home, set that catch pen up again!  This time it is not to load it is to get the horse used to you.  When your horse eats you need to be there.  If they don’t bite, have your hand in the bowl.  Stay on the outside of the panels if it is unsafe to be in.  Start desensitizing to ropes/halters by having these on the food bowl.  Read to your horse.  Get them used to your voice.  You need to plan on minimally an hour a day simply sitting with this horse.

At this point, what you are doing is gentling, and your goal is to use least resistance methods until the horse can be halter trained and then progress from there. Least resistance methods are those which build a loving and respectfulrelationship with the horse. Any training which utilizes harsh or abusive methods and /or cruelly restrictive equipment is to be avoided in all circumstances. Appropriate techniques use natural horse psychology/behavior to pattern the horse’sbehavior to working with humans, not in opposition. “Approach and retreat”, “sensitizing and desensitizing”,“making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult”, “rewarding through release of pressure” “consistency and patience”, and “finding the feel” are all catch phrases of natural horse trainers.

It is very important to understand that there are underlying similarities in how horses process information, but every horse is different.  What works for one horse and one trainer may not work for you or your horse.Stallion rearing shutterstock_84938662

We follow guidance from the Bureau of Land Management for our work with feral horses.  Here are some key principles to remember:

  • Fearful Horses must be trained the way all horses SHOULD be trained. They will not respond well either to being treated harshly or aggressively, nor to being handled in a lax or indecisive manner. They do not respond well to anger. Nor to “wimpiness”. Like children, they will take over if you can’t establish clear boundaries and limits. They will not do well if rushed, if you skip steps.
  • Fearful horses are, first and foremost, simply HORSES. In most ways they are just like any other horse. There are some important differences, however.
  • Unhandled and Wild horses haven’t been spoiled, abused or taught bad behaviors by anyone else. You are getting ” Pure Horse.” They are “blank slates” as far as experience with humans goes (but not to life in general!).
  • Wild horses have a much stronger sense of self-preservation than domestic horses, which must be understood in a training program. That’s why going at the horse’s pace and making sure everything is solid before moving to a more advanced step is important. That’s why building trust is so important. Horses are capable of great loyalty, once they have learned to trust you. But until then, that sense of self-preservation will be challenging.
  • A horse who has spent time in a social band is smarter, has a stronger sense of himself, and is more sophisticated socially than one who has grown up a in a stall. Such a horse already knows good manners, respect, the ability to function in a social order, how to get along with others. Wild horses understand leadership – what a good leader is, and how to follow a good leader.
  • A wild horse has a deep ability to read and understand movement, energy, intent, and body language. It can read YOU loud and clear. We do not always read the horse well, however, and that’s when the trouble starts.
  • Like all horses, wild horses are honest, and will give you immediate and honest feedback.

Domestic untrained horses will generally socialize faster than true wild horses. They have had exposure to humans from an early age, and even if that exposure has been positive and negative domestic horses are infinitely forgiving.

Once you have gentled the horse to a level where you can safely touch the horse it is time to graduate to the next step of training.  This will be more familiar as typical horse training.

  • Ground Work
  • Catching & Haltering
  • Leading & Standing Still
  • Respecting Your Space
  • Backing Up
  • Going Forward
  • Shoulder & Hindquarter Flexion &  Control
  • Working With Feet
  • Trailer Loading

Sound like a lot?  This is ALL before you get ready to ride.  In addition to the time you personally spend, be prepared to invest the skill of an experienced trainer in this work.  Yes, it’s expensive.  Yes, it is time consuming, but in the end, it is oh so worth it.

The information provided is based on experiences and practices followed by  Safe Harbor Volunteers.  Remember that your safety is always paramount.  Rehabilitation and socialization of an equine can be a dangerous process for the untrained.  Always consider your capabilities prior to attempting anything within these pages.