Reforming a Horse You Believe Has Been Abused

I just received an abused 4 yr old Fox trotter. He belonged to Mexicans who "Gouchoed?" him. I'm not sure what they did to him, but he's an emotional wreck.
He then moved on to a very inexperienced trainer who tried to tame him using Clinton Anderson and John Lyons round penning techniques. Though he was not abusive to the horse, he pushed it way beyond what the horse was emotional able to handle. He taught the horse to go to the corner, where this trainer would approach, touch, and try to desensitize the horse. I believe that this further traumatized the horse. He didn't want to fight and his flight response was denied to him. Though the horse tried to comply, he was terrified.

Although he did manage to teach the horse a few things, the horse is still very afraid of people. The horse simple can't handle human contact. He is not mean, he only runs away from you. If you approach his stall, he trembles and dashes from corner to corner. If you get to know him a little, he will snatch a carrot out of your hand and dash away.

This horse now belongs to me. I've had him for two weeks. I'm trying to work him very slowly using the same techniques as his previous trainer, but I'm not pushing the horse emotionally. I have made good progress. I can feed him senior feed out of the palm of my hand and stroke his face. Also, during our round penning sessions, I can usually get him calm and secure enough to stroke his face. Progress is going painfully slow.

I'm wondering if you have any tips on working with an abused animal besides the obvious "time and patience."
I have worked with wild babies babys before very successfully. However, an abused animal has much to be undone. I don't want to make any mistakes and further ruin this fine animal. In the meantime, I will continue to move very slowly. Thanks for your help.


Hi Robin,

It sounds as though you already have great instincts for this work, and I wish you the best. I've had horses that we were able to bring around very nicely--but it is a very slow process. Usually it takes more than a year to really build the trust of an abused horse. Even then, there may always be situations where their old fears are triggered. One mare we had would flip over backward when we tried to pick up a foot, and was terribly head shy. My daughter and I, working very slowly, taught her to allow us to handle all four feet easily. She even improved for the farrier, who knew to take things slowly with her. We also helped her enough with her head problem that she could be bridled normally.

One day after we'd owner her over a year, a strange man walked into our barn, saying he heard I had 'an Appy mare' for sale. She was the only Appy mare on the premises, and was in a box stall near the front of the barn. As soon as she heard his voice she started to panic. Turns out this guy was her previous owner, who learned we owned her. He wanted to gloat over our having bought such a 'bad acter,' and started reciting a long list of bad habits that the mare had. As he talked, I went into her stall and started stroking her. I swear she KNEW what I was doing because she settled down, stood stock still, and allowed me to handle her all over her body, including her feet and ears, while I explained to this lout that there never had been a problem with the horse, but only with the horse's previous handler. He got mad and stormed out of the barn. :>)

You should also be aware, though, that there are horses who will never recover from abuse. These animals may always be dangerous to ride and work around. Sadly, I once owned one of these as well. These can be heart breakers. . .but I'm going to trust not the case with you and this particular horse.


Best wishes with your project!