Are horses aware of disabilities? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 24 Old 11-11-2014, 08:55 PM Thread Starter
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Are horses aware of disabilities?

As the title asks, just wondering what people's opinions are on this? I have worked at therapeutic riding centers before and have felt that the horses were aware, and were very gentle with people who were "fragile". But those were older, well-trained horses. My two young geldings live in the field behind my house, which we rent from a neighbor. The husband has a form of fatal early dementia (called Leweybodies, I believe). He is getting very frail and uncoordinated, but he and his wife still walk through the field daily. The boys can get playing quite rough sometimes, and I have had some concerns about him getting hurt- I got kicked badly once when they were romping around and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But these are long time horse people- he was once a trainer, and they have no concerns about the boys. Today I looked out and saw them walking up the field, with the boys running around them bucking and kicking, etc. I was just getting ready to run out there with a whip when Jeremy just stopped and turned to face them. He walks with quite a stoop now, so he wasn't really looking at them- just facing in their direction. They immediately stopped all their silliness and calmed right down. He turned and continued to the gate with no further incident- both horses just stood and watched him after that.
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post #2 of 24 Old 11-11-2014, 09:30 PM
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I believe any animal has the capacity to sense this. They may not know exactly what's wrong but they know something's off. A lot like in the wild, if a horse is injured or ill the others will either abandon it or protect it. It's a survival instinct, ill or injured herd members mean catastrophe for the herd.

My brother had absence seizures since the time he was five till he was ten. Whenever he rode and was going into a seizure my mare would stop, park out, and then lay down. She wasn't trained to do so, has never been a theraputic horse but just had the instinct I suppose. What really surprised me is my gelding who is most definitely not a well trained animal what with being very flighty, would stand stock still and move re-balance himself and my brother whenever he was on him.

I've noticed that there are two kinds of horses that you see when ill or injured people come into play. Those who are compassionate and understand something's wrong and those who simply try to avoid the ill person from instinct. I see the same with ill or injured horses. These horses are either ostracized from the herd, or another couple of members will stay around them until they die, in domesticated horses why wouldn't they associate the same instinct?
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post #3 of 24 Old 11-11-2014, 10:58 PM
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I am legally disabled, I wont go into detail as to what is wrong with me because I dont really like to share that online.
But there are some horses that do understand and are protective and want to help disabled people. But there are also those who will take advantage and walk all over someone with disabilities.
One of my main driving points in buying my first horse was I wanted one I could trust and that understood me to be my escape and my therapy partner. During the year I looked at horses I met many that didn't understand or didn't care and only two who understood and were protective and gentle with me. I now own one of those two horses.

So the answer to your question is yes but not all of them will act in a positive manner. With your boys I'm not sure if they sensed Jeremy's experience and authority or if they sensed his disability because you say he used to be a trainer. Even with dementia when someone has done something most of their life they dont forget it and just because he walks a bit funny and he's frail doesn't mean he doesn't know how to give off that "I'm boss" aura or that he doesn't just give it off naturally. My great uncle is in his 70s and he still trains horses and rides horses at shows, he is frail because of his age but horses respect him because he gives off that leadership aura.
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post #4 of 24 Old 11-11-2014, 11:10 PM
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I totally believe that horses sense when people are "off".

I have a student who was in a terrible accident which left her with a debilitating brain injury. She lost her equilibrium and much of her fine muscle control.

Her prior coach refused to try to teach her. She was terrified of her getting hurt. But this woman LIVED for her horses! I told her I would, but that she had to go at the speed I decided on. Her horse was a spunky warmblood gelding and had plenty of energy, and thus caused me some concern.

She had lost her ability to do almost everything in the saddle. Worse than starting over. I told her that her brain would have to build all new information pathways and that she would have to do everything over and over and over to build these pathways again.

Her horse, the first time she got back on, immediately knew things were different. He was FABULOUS!! he became a real babysitter overnight. If he felt her losing her balance, he very carefully came to a halt so that she could regather herself. He never took advantage of her and constantly worked to stay under her.

The student progressed and he was the best horse she could ever have owned.

Will all horses be like this? Definitely not. Some will take advantage of any inability to cope. It is all about the individual horse.
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post #5 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 12:59 AM
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We had a person with a disability (nonverbal, wheelchair) who loves horses come to our place for the first time two years ago. She was unable even to get out of the van she was in, but on learning she loves horses, I brought around a couple of carrots and our ancient, gentle, retired gelding. (We've had him 27 years and don't think it's likely he'd seen a person with a severe disability before.) I gave the carrots to the girl and he calmly and gently ate them, and then stayed with his face in the van in close proximity to the delighted girl for over ten minutes after the carrots had been eaten, and way longer than he usually hangs around. He had no halter, no lead rope, no coercion of any sort, could have gone anywhere he liked but chose to stay with her, and sniffed her gently, and had his thoughtful face on the whole time.

Horses are very good observers of the environment and other creatures.

PS: This horse was considered dangerous, difficult, stubborn and unteachable by previous owners. The problem was not with the horse, who was a reliable and friendly horse for us the moment he felt safe with his new surroundings and people.
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post #6 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 01:16 AM
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Absolutely, they are. As are other animals. This is particularly obvious if it's some form of apparent disability- if a human can see another person walking/moving/talking in a strange manner then why couldn't an animal? How the animal responds seems to vary. Some of the horses I worked with when I volunteered with therapeutic riding were absolutely fantastic and gentle with the riders. A couple very quickly learned that they could take advantage, and they were not in the program long.

Same thing with dogs. Some dogs will be around a disabled or physically infirm person and will instantly become calm and understanding. Some will immediately become on guard and wary of this person. Both sides make sense- the understanding dog can sense that there is something different about this person and treat them kindly. Some sense that something is different about the person and realize that it's something theyr'e not accustomed to. This isn't something that they've seen before, so they are wary. This seems particularly true with people's gaits (and also seems to apply to intoxicated fellows)- they're used to seeing people walk with a rhythmic gait. Add stumbling, limping, or any sort of hitch and it becomes unusual to them.
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post #7 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 03:06 AM
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While I think of it: We have one essentially blind donkey (retinal detachment) who gets around with her two "guide donkey" pals (we got them as a group because the prior owner wanted them to stay together for that reason). Sparkle wasn't always blind either, but the other two donkeys clearly are aware of her having extra limitations and look out for her. The other female donkey is forever looking back to check on her if she's slightly out of range. Sparkle will bray if she does lose contact and the others will come running immediately. However, usually she gets around extremely well, compensating to a large degree by listening out for the others and by apparently mapping the whole 12 hectares they variously range on in her head.

The seeing donkeys get into scrapes with each other over food sometimes, but never with her - they mostly share with her. The horses cottoned on to the fact that Sparkle can't get their body language and are super tolerant of her accidental invasions of their space, over and above what they are for anyone else. Often they nose her gently. And for some reason, whenever I am trimming feet, she will come right up close and stay in physical touch with either me or the animal being trimmed. It's like a magnet to her.

She does not do this when I am tacking up for riding - it's just the hoof trimming. Having said that, when the old gelding was sick and lying down two years ago, the three little donkeys stood in a circle around him for nearly 24 hours, noses touching his body, until he got better. I find it really interesting to witness this kind of stuff.

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post #8 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 10:55 AM Thread Starter
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Yes, it is interesting. I don't know if the horses see him as a leader because of his experience or if they are being protective of him. Or perhaps they know it is HIS field! But whatever the reason, I am glad it has worked out this way. I talked to the wife later and she admitted they had given them each an apple upon entering the field, so they were being little jerks looking for more apples! it still amazes me that they still do the daily trek through there when he can barely walk anymore and looks like he will fall down if you blow on him, and they know the boys are young and boisterous. But I guess it makes him happy to just be around horses (which is why they rented us the field). All I know is that my horses are much more respectful of him than they are of me!
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post #9 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 04:38 PM
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I think horses are aware of disabilities.

This isn't quite as romantic as some of what has been posted (though I totally believe that they have the capacity for this, and believe everything that has been posted!) but acquired disabilities that are physical, particularly a difference in gait, can actually cause horses to spook
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post #10 of 24 Old 11-12-2014, 05:51 PM
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Jeremy might have given them that look that says you're messing with the wrong person.

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