The Troubled Horse’s Brain

Rescued horses aren’t colt-starting contest material

There’s a reason colt-starting competitions rarely feature rescued horses. It’s the same reason contractors would rather tear down a house instead of restoring it.

What’s under the surface can wreak havoc on your wallet, your skills, your patience, and even your equipment and facilities.

Troubled horses – those rescued or with stressful, less than idyllic backgrounds – have neurological baggage that can take years to unpack.

As owners and riders, it’s our responsibility to be conscientious of these past traumas and of the monumental, often daily challenges faced by these horses. The better we understand their baggage, the better chance we have at creating positive change.

Here’s the HorseHead perspective.

How situations become lasting traumatic etchings in the horse’s brain:

The horse’s brain is exceptional at alerting to threats. Being a sensory-motor creature, they have a “false positive bias.” Specific stimuli are considered threats unless proven otherwise. Run first, think later.

Certain noises, smells, and movements send electrochemical impulses through sensory neurons that activate the brain’s

alarm system (the hypothalamus and amygdala) resulting in a sympathetic fight-or-flight response.

If the situation or stimuli is life-threatening or is perceived as life-threatening, the trauma can be etched into memory permanently. That is, over-activation of the amygdala can create changes in the hippocampus. These brain structures are actually adjacent to one another, which makes it even easier to appreciate how emotions can impact memories.

Read more about the amygdala route in the brain here.

In humans, trauma can create Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that may include experiencing flashbacks. It’s extremely difficult to purge the flashbacks, fear associations, and bad memories.

Similarly, horses lose the ability to discriminate between past and present experiences, or, to interpret environmental contexts correctly. Their neural circuits trigger extreme stress responses when encountering situations that only remotely resemble the initial trauma.

Unfortunately, rescued horses may be limited in their ability to recover or to live a normal life. Extinguishing post-traumatic fears will rely on neural plasticity or the brain’s ability to make new neural connections.

Consider a horse with a history of trailer-related trauma: Trailer memories are neurological super highways in the horse’s brain. Recovery and rehabilitation will mean laying down one small positive neural pathway on top of another. It takes time and commitment to provide scores of positive experiences around preexisting pathways. As Martin Black has said, it may take hundreds of good experiences to compete with just one previous trauma.

Read about Deep Practice here.


Rescued horses’ nervous systems may have become up-regulated by their trauma. In other words, they are hyped up and it takes very little to send and keep them in a sympathetic state. They may panic and fight more readily than other horses.

When trainers and owners apply more, undue pressure, they keep these horses in an overly-aroused state. Discomfort like this only exacerbates troubled behavior. Read more about downregulation here.

What about Mustangs?

Mustangs may not have experienced overt trauma, but their lack of positive human contact means they present similar

Trainer West Taylor works with mustang

challenges. It may be extremely difficult to help these horses find relaxation. Accomplished trainers will look for tiny windows of opportunity to downregulate a mustang’s nervous system. Results come from observing minute shifts in comfort and rewarding them with release of pressure.

Read our collection of mustang training and progress note.

What about Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is another consequence of neglect or abuse. It happens when animals are put in inescapably stressful environments. Regardless of their attempts, they can find no relief. These unfortunate scenarios result in depressed behavior. On a brain level, the neurochemical, serotonin, is impacted. Serotonin is related to mood balance. The key feature of learned helplessness is the transference of this shut-down behavior to all situations.

To breakthrough this passive listlessness, one has to reestablish exploratory behavior and curiosity and the accompanying dopamine reinforcement. In other words, the trainer needs to show the horse that it has control over its environment and encourage it to engage with the environment. Minute victories and small, multiple successes can help redevelop an internal locus of control for the horse. That internal locus of control? It’s what we call confidence.

Read bombproof or shutdown.

The Wobble Board – Learn the science behind training

Can you toggle between nervous system states?