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:
- Hercules is bright
- 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?