Horses’ Emotional Baggage

We humans often talk about lugging around emotional baggage and bringing it into a new relationship. When both parties in the new relationship bring emotional baggage, there are bound to be problems.

Horses are no different.

Horses with previous owners – that is, the vast majority of horses – have been affected in one way another by their previous relationships with people. A horse lucky enough to be with real horse people who understand and appreciate the beauty, intelligence – and strength – of these magnificent flight animals, will arrive at a new home with a trusting and willing behaviour. Others – again, the vast majority of horses – have not been so lucky.

I know a woman who had a horse and carriage business, driving both heavy and light horses for historic tours, weddings, birthday parties, and hay & sleigh rides. She had a great team of black Percherons and wanted a black team of Standardbreds. She was lucky enough to find a Montreal team that were great in traffic. This team was very thin; the mare had been mistreated by a previous owner “who wore a tuque”, so the new owner looked after them for almost a year to get them back into shape, not asking anything of them but to enjoy good food and rest – and lots of brushing and love. Two things happened. First: she noticed that no matter how much hay she put out for the day, nothing was left in the paddock – EVER! Every scrap disappeared every day. She kept increasing the amount of hay, but it was always all gone. Second: one cold winter’s morning, she went to the barn to feed the horses. Going up to the mare’s stall with morning hay before the morning hot mash, she was smashed in the face and knocked down – broken glasses, bloody nose and a massive headache. She was wearing a toque.

Even though the mare had been treated very well for almost a year in her new home, the toque brought fear back to the mare and she reacted instinctively and violently. It wasn’t her fault: it was her emotional baggage.

When the team were finally used for tours, it became very apparent that they weren’t 100% happy UNTIL the owner started asking French-speaking tourists to speak to them in their native language – French. After that, they were fine. And, yes, they finally learned a bit of English, too.

After a few years, it was time to downsize. In addition to other horses, the Standardbred team had to be sold; the one stipulation was that they must be sold as a team, not separately because of their very close bond. The mare turned out to be very expressive regarding her fear – no longer in an aggressive way. She became the weathervane for sensing potential aggression by humans. Whenever anyone came to see the team, the mare would flap her lower lip when she sensed “harm”, usually around any man. When the mare flapped her lower lip, the owner told the prospective buyers, “Sorry, this team is not for sale.” Then one day, a gentle old, Dutch farmer came to see the team. The mare adored him! The owner let the team go for a song because the horses’ safety – physical and emotion – were more important than money.

Oh! – remember the hay “issue” in the paddock? After the team left, there was lots of leftover hay. The team was so worried about being hungry again, that they ate everything every day.

How do we know what emotional baggage a horse is bringing to its new home?

Watch your horse and try to understand what emotional baggage it is bringing to its new home.

Share your stories. Write and tell us about your horse’s emotional baggage. What kind of behaviour did your horse exhibit? What did you do?