Program for training horses who have experienced trauma and have other challenges

Workshop geared toward helping horse sanctuaries and rescue organizations help horses with various behavioral challenges is held at Best Friends.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

Hamilton the pony with a trainerHamilton may be a mixed-breed pony, but his caregivers at Horse Haven describe him as "purebred cute." He’s got a beautiful golden coat and a luxurious black mane. What he doesn’t have – what he’s working hard on building – is confidence. Hamilton is what horse experts call a right-brained introvert. His response, whenever he gets scared, is to shut down and check out. Lately, however, he’s enjoying some newfound confidence and spunk. And the recent Rehoming for Life program, held at the Sanctuary, is helping him build up these attributes.

The five-day pilot program, a joint effort between Best Friends and the Parelli Education Institute, was led by Parelli experts Kathy and John Baar, along with Horse Haven manager Jen Reid. Workshops were geared toward helping horse sanctuaries and rescue organizations across the U.S. save more horses – and improving life for those horses once rescued.

Helping fearful, skittish horse develop confidence

John and Kathy began the clinic by working with Hamilton. Kathy led Hamilton through a series of exercises designed to make him feel more confident about getting into a trailer. Because Hamilton’s fear issues make it difficult for him to trust humans, or do what they ask of him, he’s had difficulty with the task in the past. Though he’d gotten into the trailer before, he was skeptical about it.

Instead of asking Hamilton to get in the trailer right away, Kathy asked the skittish horse to climb up on a pedestal. Then she had him position his body between two barrels lying close together. Once he met those challenges, getting into the trailer was easier, and Hamilton was much more confident about it.

Though Jen has been working with Hamilton for several years, and has seen him make great progress, she says: “It’s always beneficial to have someone with (John and Kathy’s) level of skill and experience come and put their eyes and hands on the horse.” Kathy and John came in with fresh eyes; and that, ultimately, helped Hamilton move forward.

Two horses from Perseverance Equine Rescue and Sanctuary in Cedar City, Utah

Horses participating in the Rehoming for Life program at Best Friends Animal SanctuaryTerry and Ralph Morrison had a similar experience with two of their horses. The Morrisons run Perseverance Equine Rescue and Sanctuary out of Cedar City, Utah. They take in special-needs horses. They brought Skip and Mazy to the workshop. John and Kathy worked with Skip and Mazy as they had with Hamilton.

Now, with the knowledge they gained in the program, Terry and Ralph are using Parelli Natural Horsemanship techniques back at their sanctuary to help the horses learn to accept positive human contact. “The techniques work,” Ralph says, “and Mazy has been very receptive so far.” As for Skip, who suffered a serious past trauma that left her wary of people, he says, “This will work – it will just take a little more time.”

Training horses with traumatic pasts and other challenges

The last two days of the clinic focused on helping horses like Hamilton and Skip – those who come into rescue organizations with serious trust issues, and/or who must overcome physical abuse, illness or starvation. Best Friends veterinarian Dr. Tara Timpson did a presentation on re-feeding starved horses, and Jen shared information about Best Friends’ admissions, rehoming, and adoption processes.

“It was a very condensed version of Best Friends’ How to Start and Run an Animal Sanctuary workshop that focused exclusively on horses,” Jen explains. And she was more than happy to share the information with the program’s 22 participants. In fact, this type of information sharing is crucial to Best Friends’ mission, because, as Jen says, "Part of Save Them All is empowering others to do their bit."

Learn more about Horse Haven at Best Friends.

Photos by Ann Hepworth