Mental Illness in Horses, Updated


Update: New information has come to light about Hercules. I no longer believe, even one iota, his mental illness is organic.  We found out that Hercules was severely mistreated when no one else was present, by someone connected to the barn.  His owner is in grief over this: she’s the barn owner, and there was no way she could have known. This man deliberately harmed Hercules mentally and physically, to get “back” at the barn owner: he believed she was responsible for problems he was having.  We know in detail what happened to Hercules now: his reactive behavior matches perfectly with the kind of abuse he suffered.  I’m glad a brave person came forward and told us what happened.  I feel awful that he suffered, and continues to suffer, from the fear of it happening again.  The positive: now that what happened to him is known, it can be addressed with better accuracy, and he stands a better chance of being loved and understood.  That he continued to trust other people at all is a testament to his loving nature.

Hercules is in some stage of a nervous breakdown.  Given I know his entire history, I believe it’s organic: not human caused.  As he aged, he got more skittish, then abruptly less.  Then he would react to something that only he could see, in a wild and dangerous manner.  Hercules is dead honest, and sweet.  He does not want to spook, he does not want to be afraid, he doesn’t want to unload his rider or engage in bad behavior, he wants to be the best horse in the world for you.  He wants you to be happy.  He has Sunshine, his half brother’s, heart of gold.  I will do anything for you, anything. He is not intellectually challenged.  He’s smart.  You show him something once, he’s knows exactly what you want, and can repeat it easily.

He reacts instantly to perceived danger, yet even the dishonest and spooky horses in the same arena not only don’t spook, they avoid him.  They shrink.  They try to become invisible.  A horse bolting in terror is enough to set off honest horses: it’s herd mentality.  Certainly this should set off every dishonest or spooky horse for miles.  Yet they want to quietly get out-of-the-way, blend into the rail, or ask their rider um, can we leave now?

When Hercules is terrified, not one horse reacts to him with normal herd behavior.

We recognize this in people, when we’re standing in line somewhere, and the emotional temperature changes around us abruptly.  We look to see who walked in.  It’s primal.  We feel it: the new person perceives a world that  tilts a little too far from the reality we recognize.

All I can figure is something happened organically in his brain as he aged, like it can with people,  until it hit the tipping point, and he was no longer in quite the same world as the rest of us.  Our worlds intermingle, but his world is becoming very frightening, with leering shapes and shadows everywhere.  The people he knows and trusts feel familiar and trustworthy, and then he plants and looks helplessly at them: are  you safe?  I think I know you.  But I’m not sure.  No, I know you.  Why do I feel this way?  Did you scare me and I blanked out on it?   Should I still trust you?

He’s had every work up there is.  He’s healthy and fit, not a thing wrong with him physically.  His eyesight is good.  His hearing, his sinuses, his teeth, his blood work, his body…all is well.   Except he needs some Prozac, and anti-anxiety meds, and an emotional seeing-eye person, who can guide him through his imaginary mine fields.  Supplements, feed changes, exercise changes, all very carefully monitored and implemented.  No difference.  He finally became dangerous, and his owner, an accomplished horsewoman, was injured twice, and very lucky to have lived.  Both times, absolutely nothing was going on.  Many people witnessed the incidents.  They said it was horrifying.

If you knew him, this would break your heart.

His owner tried to stick with him and help him.  Who else would he trust more?  He had belonged to her from the day he hit the ground.  She’s handled him beautifully and  loves him.  She took major precautions, set him up for success, and still ended up in two serious accidents, both in an arena, witnesses everywhere who swear he was completely relaxed one minute and mortally terrified the next.  One incident happened while she was mounting, he “saw” something and melted down. She was still in the air, not on, not off, and was dragged by him, which sent him into the stratosphere.  She’s lucky to be alive, and have walked away with bruises.  Clearly, he was no longer safe to ride.

Previous to that incident, I witnessed him lose it in the cross ties one day, when nothing at all was going on.  He was relaxed, not another soul in the barn, it was nap time and all the horses were snoozing.  Suddenly his head jerked up  and he was ripping ties out of the wall as if his very life were at stake.  I went in to grab a tie to keep him from going down after he reared and hit his head, but his owner held me back.  Her action confused me until I saw his eye.  He did not recognize us. I am convinced he didn’t see us.  I don’t know what he saw, but we weren’t in the picture.   She was smart enough to get that and protect us both.

Not one minute before, I’d been feeding him peppermints, talking baby talk to his happy face, and rubbing his lips, which he loves, while is owner untacked him after a successful ride.

His owner asked Greta if she thought he could be brought ‘back’.  Greta had seen some of his behavior.  She’s been around a LOT of horses in her life.  Repeat Olympic medalist, now trainer, clinician, and long-time incredible judge of horses.  If anyone had seen something like this and knew what to do,  likely it would be Greta.

She’s also very direct.

Owner: What do you think it is?  Do you think you can help him?

Greta: What do I tink it tis?  I tink this one here, he’s got a loose screw, that is vat I tink.  Oh Ja, I can ride him.  Can I help him? ja vell, I tink is possible…but with the cuckoo, that we cannot know for sure.  I can try some tings.

I felt washed with relief.  Hercules and Sunshine are a lot alike at heart.  It’s hard to love one and not the other.  They have all the same qualities with two exceptions:

  1. Hercules is bright
  2. Sunshine has tight screws

Greta is using an immersion technique (of sorts) with Hercules.   He reacts strongly to stimulation: perceived or real.  She is desensitizing him to stimulation.  She rides with the radio blasting,  she flops things on and around him, and expects he’ll be fine, and when he’s not, she is a tough love, reality-check therapist.  She does not want to scare him.  She wants to build his tolerance.  Will it work?  It remains to be seen.  She had a round pen constructed in the covered arena just for Hercules.  Not only was she going to have her first rides in there on him, she wanted him in the round pen, in the arena he was most comfortable in, with a lot of people and horses working nearby: familiar yet desensitizing.

Hercules cantered around a couple of times.  Then stood quietly in the middle of  the round pen for ten minutes or so, seemingly oblivious to the activity.  20 seconds later, he flew in terror over the top rail.  He’s maybe 15.2 on a good day, and he easily cleared 5″ from a dead halt.  Lilli, Hercules’ owner, Greta, me, and Carla were all riding in the arena.  We all saw it.  We all looked at each other.  Did we all just see that?

Hercules: galloping around in abject terror, setting off not one horse into herd-mind.  Not even spooky, green, can’t-stand-still Hog.  I believe it’s because they know he’s off.   Somehow they understand there is nothing to be afraid of despite the rolling waves of fear broadcasting off of Hercules.  If anything, they quiet down.  They try to be invisible.

This, more than anything, makes me believe organic (not human induced) mental illness in horses is possible, and that Hercules might be a prime example.

What has been your experience with mental illness in horses?  If it was organic, what helped?


15 thoughts on “Mental Illness in Horses, Updated

  1. Dear LiteraryHorse

    I am an Equestrian Journalist and I am currently writing and article for HQ magazine from South African on the mental disorders we find in horses; depression, PTSD and so forth. I would love to use the story of Hercules in my article as an example of what happens to horses in extreme abuse cases. Would this be alright with you? And if so, do you perhaps have any images of Hercules we might be able to use? The images aren’t a must but they would be very much appreciated should you agree.

    Thank you very much for considering, and hope to hear from you soon.

    Kind Regards

    Engela Snyman

  2. If you find a solution, please let me know. This sounds identical to the horse that we got 1 1/2 ago. Thus far, we have not found any solutions and have followed the same steps you mentioned. Even yesterday, the horse was having a panic attack in the field while the other horses didn’t even give stop grazing.

    1. As an update of sorts, Hercules is coming along somewhat. Honestly, out of all the tests, expensive trainers, etc, two things stand out for me: The Teenager Principle, and a low vision problem. Greta has been his sole daily rider, but she is also doing all of his care. I think it’s helped him tremendously to have one, just one, person to relate to in the fearful process. When she’s not riding him, she leads him around and ties him up while she does chores or teaches. He has begun to relax. Much less spooky.

      Also, I think that while he tests out A-Okay in the vision department, how can we know how sharp his vision is, or if he is blurred enough to see an “aura” around objects or people, which probably changes with the light levels. Coming in and going out of the barn, going under trees, passing through shadows. I’ve since talked to friends who have low vision. For them, a succession of changes in light/dark contrast make their lives much harder, and familiar objects look unfamiliar, or seem to change shape and density.

      For what it’s worth, after watching Hercules since October, that’s my take on a possible organic solution. His behavior would look crazy to us. Why the other horses are not reacting is a mystery to me.

      I personally believe mental illness in horses exists (though I believe 99.9% is human caused). But I’m feeling less and less that Hercules’ problem is in the .1% of horses born with crossed wires.

  3. I am sorry this is a new reply to an old posting but it really touched me. Are there any new updates?

    It does seem strangely neurological. It almost seems like he is living a nightmare. You made several references to him seeming like he was relaxed and dozing off, and then the terror began. Maybe the body muscles and system to “shut down” during dreaming has broken down and he is acting out on his dreams?

    So scary, I hope your friend has made some progress. Such a sad situation.

    1. Thank you for asking about him. His owner isn’t about to give up on him. She owns many horses, and he can live his life out in pasture if necessary. He will be kept safely, whether he’s ever ridden or not.

      That’s an interesting concept that he might be confused between sleeping and waking. I do have a follow up (sort of) in mind. I’ve ridden two of his full siblings and several of his half siblings, and there is a trait that runs through that line, and shows up differently in the different horses.

      Hercules is the sweetest, kindest, most honest horse you can imagine. He’s a beautiful soul looking for a way to be okay. I haven’t personally seen much change in him.

      But his trainer has asked me to work on him, so we’ll see how that goes! I’ll be sure to report back.

  4. Well, it could be toxilogical. He might be eating something. We have seen some very strange behaviour when a group of our horses ate something in the pasture (we never found out what it was). They displayed extreme fear and strange coordination. It might be helpful to completely replace his feed for a few weeks, incl. hay and – most important – pasture.
    I also agree about the eye specialist having a look. It really could be his eyesight and the regular vet might not be catching it.

    She might want to give Valerian a try, instead of Prozac. It’s a natural herb, and works wonderfully on horses and is less invasive.

    My sister (also named Greta) works professionally with problem horses and I have seen some unbelievable animals go through her hands. If it is not an organic issue then getting a person who works exclusively with this kind of horse (ie problem horses) is certainly a good bet.

    Sorry to hear of this. Poor horse, it must be living hell for him right now.

  5. I know two trainers who have amazing insight into the “inner” workings of horses. Mark Rashid, and Harry Whitney. I’ve seen them work successfully with some truly difficult horses. They have the ability to do much more that just the desensitizing that Greta wants to do. I think she is the wrong trainer if that’s the best thing she can come up with.

    1. Ah, my desire to be short (okay, short-ish – don’t make too much fun of me guys 😉 ) has left Greta looking like an incompetent trainer. I appreciate your comment: it’s always good to get input, and it’s *always* good to fix an erroneous impression.

      It’s not all she’s doing. It’s the most visible thing, from the sidelines: so the one I focused on most clearly in the telling. She’s doing a ton of trust work, but also reviewing all the physical issues and keeping in good communication with a Hercules “Team”.

      Thanks for saying something so I could clear that up, and it’s always good to hear what trainers out there people feel positive about!

  6. I’ve dealt with two “loose screws” in my life:

    #1 was a 20-year old Morgan mare who had similar behavior to Hercules: one second she was fine, next second she was a terrified maniac. However, her “episodes” only happened (as far as I could tell) with a rider–never when she was in the field or doing groundwork. She was, alas, owned by the Clueless Sisters, who sold her to a !beginner! and then she went through a bunch of people quickly before somebody finally put her down. Sad–and scary.

    Horse #2 was a 35+ year old Arab mare who had led a very good long life. She went blind, then deaf, and then started to hallucinate (possibly from lack of external stimuli?) The owner twigged that her hallucinations were getting more frequent and more scary to the horse, and put her down rather than subject the mare to a life full of fear. Good call.

    I don’t know that any treatment existed at the time for either of the horses–I don’t believe any of the owners tried to address the mental illness of their horses. Certainly for the very old horse, it was “just time.” But…difficult. She was very well-loved.

  7. I like Kate’s suggestions. This story is heartbreaking. How old is Hercules? I can’t imagine watching my beloved horse go through something like this and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I truly hope that somehow, someone can resolve this problem.

  8. He might indeed have something wrong with his wiring – something neurological. Have they tried either or both of magnesium or vitamin B-1, which sometimes improve neurological functioning? It sounds like issues with eyesight have been ruled out, although it might be worth consulting an equine eye specialist – I have seen horses all of a sudden become very spooky as they age, primarily related to subtle changes in vision.

    I feel sorry for the poor horse and his people and hope they find some relief.

    1. I’ll ask about the magnesium and Vitamin B-1. I know he was on different supplements the vet suggested…I don’t think he’s on anything now. Off for a period so he’s clean to try a new thing. I like your suggestions, I’ll pass them along.

      I’m counting trying to figure out how old Hercules is… gosh now I guess he’d be 10 or 11? Not old at all.

      He will melt down in the field. Or paddock. As far as I know he hasn’t melted down in a stall. Part of what make this so difficult, is he’ll go half a year with no big issue. The out of nowhere, he’s freaked.

      He was a touchy, spooky, standoffish foal and yearling, got a ton of appropriate handling and training, and in fact went through (as an adult) three show seasons, with all the usual wacko stuff that happens at shows, and he never lost it. He was beautiful, and earnest, and won. This is his first year missing a season.

      1. Dear Literaryhorse,
        Once again, this is a new reply to a very old post.Please do give the latest update if you see this.I came across your posts because I currently have a horse exactly the same as Hercules.Have owned him since he was 4 and he is now 15.I wont give up on him either.This year his ‘breakdowns’ have started affecting his health, which no vet medicine has been able to successfully treat.Nothing has worked for him and yes it is heartbreaking to live with.What keeps me going is that when he is ‘normal’, he is a happy sweet boy and he tries very hard.Hopfully this makes up for the terror episodes in his life.

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