That old saying you can't judge a book by its cover couldn't be more true when it comes to rescue horses. Why? Because a rescue horse's story is continuously being rewritten.
You go to the rescue organization, auction, or other location where the horse you want to bring home lives. It stands quietly when you slip on the halter. I appears to enjoy being touched because it stands still as you run your hands over its body. It lifts its feet without complaint. When it's time to bring him home, the horse steps right into the trailer and hauls like a dream.
This behavior continues for about a week. Then you notice some subtle changes. The horse isn't always so eager to have you approach. He might flinch when you try to halter him. He may move away when you touch and no longer be so compliant when you ask for his feet.
Another week goes by and now the horse flat out refuses to be caught. He's kicking when you touch his belly and wont let you near his back end. You start thinking, on no! What have I gotten myself into?
The horse you bring home is calm but clearly hasn't had a good meal in who knows how long. He's super skinny. His skin is nasty - covered in rain rot. His feet haven't seen a rasp in years.
However, he is totally sweet and you and he are bonding. You have him on a good diet and you two have lovely grooming sessions and go for long walks together. He's looking better every day. It's all quite perfect, until....
It seems overnight your steady-eddy companion is bouncing off the walls. When you lead him, he's hopping and leaping at the end of the line. It's like flying a kite! He spooks at every little thing too. When you come back from your walks you are completely frazzled and it takes 20 minutes for your heart to stop pounding.
He still likes to be groomed and such, but now he's tipping over the grooming tote and flinging the brushes hither and yon. He chews on the lead, unties every knot, and takes himself on adventures into the feed room the moment you turn your back. What the heck happened to your sweet calm horse?
When a horse who was frightened, starved, malnourished, and traumatized has the opportunity to heal, he quite literally becomes a different horse. This transformation can come on fast and be quite surprising!
Horses that experience significant levels of stress often cope by shutting down their emotions. They also become "dull," less responsive to the world around them. These horses seem to be the perfect combination of mellow and obedient, doing what is asked of them without a peep of protest. However, this is not healthy horse behavior. This state of mind is a form of disengagement, also known as disassociation, that all creatures with a brain may use when they are completely overwhelmed. If you look carefully you will see that disassociating horses move through the world without being part of it. They do not respond normally. They behave like robots.
Once they get into a place where they feel safe, secure, and have access to nutritious groceries, they "wake up." Their bodies and minds become more active and potentially more reactive too.
Get Used to It
Feeling better is a big adjustment for a horse that has felt lousy for some time. There is the physical aspect of experiencing a comfortable healthy body as well as an emotional shift. These are unfamiliar thoughts and sensations that your horse needs to process and integrate into his new life experience.
Feeling more alive and engaged with the world, and humans, can bring up old fears and insecurities, too. You never know what will come up. Some horses become very agitated and spooky. Behaviors associated with anger and frustration may come up as well.
Your horse isn't the only one who has to adapt. You will need to adjust to your horse's needs as he goes through this process. It may mean transitioning to less demanding requests and lowering your expectations in order to reduce your horse's stress during his "awakening."
On the Physical Side
Your horse's transformation may also reveal physical issues that were "hidden" because he wasn't as motivated to move or because he was so emotionally detached that he disconnected from his body. I have experienced that many times while conducting Wellness Assessments (PureJoyHorsemanship.com/services) on horses that suffered trauma. They have learned to stay quiet about their pain because they had been punished for expressing it.
Imagine being hit or having your head jerked on because you refused to have a painful saddle put on or were beaten because you kicked out because you have excruciating ulcer pain. They learn very quickly that showing pain is to be avoided at all costs.
If they aren't being fed properly, horses can also become weak and may also be experiencing brain fog - diminished cognitive ability. Both conditions can be resolved with a balanced nutritious diet and revitalize a low-energy horse.
It's Time to Heal
Giving your rescue horse what he needs to be healthy and happy is, the long run, everyone's best interest. That includes meeting his needs for a healthy diet, room to move, friends, acceptance of what is, humane handling, patience, and time. If it ever feels tempting to return to the good ol' days when your horse didn't feel that great but was much easier to handle, remember that your horse's welfare should always be your top priority. His job isn't to make your life easier. It's your job, responsibility and darn it a privilege, to have the opportunity improve his quality of life.
This Too Shall Pass
Eventually most horses "level out" once they have a chance to adapt to their new emotional and physical selves and learn how to behave-while-feeling-fabulous. However, you may discover you have a real spitfire on your hands. Using compassionate communication to modify behavior in a humane fear-free and force-free way (positive reinforcement, low-intensity cues, habituation, classical and counter conditioning), is the best way to manage your horse's actions and emotions both in the early stages of his transformation and beyond.