Working With Rescues: Building Open Communication and Strengthening Bonds

Working With Rescues: Building Open Communication and Strengthening Bonds

Working with rescues is no easy feat, but every equestrian knows opening your heart to horse rescues is the first step. The rest of the road to your horse’s recovery, including your bond with your equine, will take more work than expected, but the results are well worth the effort you will put in.

Rescue horses have been through trauma that will require proper rehabilitation facilitated by professionals. However, as your four-legged pal’s new riding partner, you will play a major and crucial part in nursing your horse back to health. This goes beyond ensuring that they are physically capable of being ridden, but it also involves nurturing trust and effective communication with your rescue. With trust and communication between the two of you, you can trust your equine partner with your life, because you gave them a second chance in theirs!

Why choose a rescue horse?

Taking care of a rescue horse involves a lot more when compared to a regular equine. But if you speak to any rider who has successfully rescued and rehabilitated horses, they will most likely say that it’s a rewarding and enriching experience that they would not have felt if it weren’t for the chance they took on their rescues.

This is certainly the case for Lana Zavada, an international-level trainer, rider, and proud “rescue mama.” Zavada was advised a lot of times to opt for a nice horse instead of a rescue, but she wouldn’t have it. She says, “It wasn’t the perfect time they came to me. My horses came to my life unexpectedly, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. There were lots of struggles, financially and mentally. I was advised many times to just get one nice horse to go to shows with and not waste my time on others. But do you really waste your time when you’re with someone you love?”

Photo provided by Lana Zavada 

A rescue horse will take more effort to take care of, rehabilitate, and perhaps train compared to a “nice horse.” But as Zavada says from experience, the best part about working with rescues is something you can’t otherwise get from a regular riding partner. She says, “The best part about working with rescues is realizing that the horse that nobody believed in, was neglected and abused, is now shining brighter than the sun. And if you didn’t do it, most likely, nobody would. You saved a whole life.”

The Importance of Open Communication Between Horse and Rider

When taking care of a rescue, Zavada gives this very important piece of advice: “Be the one who listens, not the one who orders.”

Sometimes, a rider who chooses to take care of an abused horse doesn’t know the history or background of the horse. Horse behavioral problems, horse aggression towards humans, and the like are not readily seen by non-professionals. It takes an observant eye and professional advice to pinpoint what happened based on their physical features and their overall demeanor. The introduction of various locations, such as the stables and training ring, as well as equipment that your equine would be familiar with, can also help you piece together, or “listen” to your horse to figure out your equine’s history of abuse. Knowing your riding partner’s background is a vital step towards learning how to communicate with one another.

For example, if you didn’t know that your rescue horse was traumatized by the rain because they were left out by their previous owners to get drenched, you would get frustrated or confused whenever your equine acted out during storms. If you knew their history, you would have a better understanding of their reactions, and learn how to communicate and handle them.

Zavada recalls how one of her rescues, Goldy, was severely abused in the past, and how he stopped trusting humans. “His previous owners who rescued him couldn’t manage him,” She says, “They told us he would bite and kick. But when we took him home, he never kicked. He was stressed about many things, such as touching, washing, tacking up and mounting. It took a lot of time and carrots to let him understand that nobody was going to hurt him.”

As an equestrian, you’re used to giving the cues instead of the other way around, but any rider worth their salt would know that when there’s open communication between you and your equine, not only are your rides smoother and better, but your horse also responds to your cues better, and with respect and kindness.

Sold out

Sold out

Build a Strong Bond with Your Rescue

While you’ll probably expect that  bonding with your horse will take longer with a rescue compared to doing so with your other horses, you would need to bear in mind that a rescue is a special case that requires extra patience and more understanding. Zavada says, “It takes time and patience, both for physical and mental ‘glow up’. Do not expect too much right away. Trust the process.”

Take care of the physical needs.

Zavada stresses the importance of horse rehabilitation, which include the basics of equine nutrition, physiotherapy, and psychology, or positive reinforcement. “It’s also very useful to know how to perform first aid. So basically, to be a good rescue mama, you need to virtually become a vet assistant.” How does becoming a vet assistant aid in building a strong bond with your rescued equine partner? Taking care of their physical well-being shows them your love and support in their healing. Abused horses are oftentimes neglected and used, and giving rescue remedy for horses and being shown the opposite of the treatment that they’re used to will greatly help your bond.

Find a proper tack and equipment for their needs.

Abused rescue horses often have serious injuries that need proper care and rehabilitation by a vet, and there would be recommended tacks or equipment necessary to stop the injuries from getting worse, or to aid in their healing. Zavada explains that Kavallerie Dressage Boots have been her absolute favorite in giving extra support to her horses. “Bandages aren’t always handy, they take long to put on and they get dirty easily. For everyday rides, I discovered Kavallerie Dressage Boots that work just the same as bandages would—full coverage and great support. They’re easy to put on and to wash. I am never worried that my horse doesn’t have enough leg protection, like in regular boots.”

Some horses who have been overworked or abused would exhibit swayback and would often find that curved back to be sensitive or painful when touched. A proper tack with a well-fitted saddle and pads would oftentimes alleviate the pain of a swayback riding partner through spreading out the weight of the rider or lessening the pressure off your horse’s pain points.

Watch your horse’s body language and how you speak to your equine.

As an equestrian, you’ve been taught on how to approach horses, speak to them, act around them, and how to understand horse body language.  “Speaking” horse goes beyond your verbal cues; it also includes how you communicate what you need through touch.  Gentle scratching or strokes can be most helpful, until your horse can relax.

Photo provided by Lana Zavada

Go for variety in activities.

Variety is key, says Zavada. “I think you need to find things your horse loves. Do something new together, visit new places, learn a new trick or exercise and always add a lot of positivity into it. This will help your horse feel safe with you, they will open up to you and listen to you.”

Stay positive!

As Zavada said, adding positivity to your daily encounters with your rescue horse builds trust and communication. She stresses the point of staying calm and confident as well. “This goes for all of what you do together, in any environment. Horses feel our emotions, and if we stay cool, they will relax as well.”

Keep on working on your communication skills.

When your equine partner is fully prepared to go back to training or daily riding, open communication lines are more important than ever. Develop this through continuously understanding your horse. Zavada says, “In the training, it’s important to finish before the horse asks for it, before it gets bored or tired. This way, they’ll only associate training with something good and exciting.” She also stresses that you must let your horses know how important they are to you. “Forgive them their weaknesses, and they’ll grow into strengths with time…Just never doubt your decision to love your horse, and they’ll be their very best selves.”

Working with rescue horses is an experience unlike any other. While nothing could ever fully prepare you for the work that you need to put in as a “rescue mama” (or papa), what matters is your commitment to your horse. Commit to nurturing your connection and communication with one another everyday—it shows your love and devotion to your rescue.

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