Separation Anxiety In Horses

For some horses separation anxiety is such a huge emotional upset that they will put their own personal safety at risk. I have witnessed horses injure themselves while running frantically trying to find or rejoin their herd mate(s).

From the perspective of the horse it makes perfect sense. As a prey animal being alone or separated increases the horse’s survival instinct to ignite feeling at risk for any predators. All horses and prey animals know that “safety in numbers” is best.

It may surprise you to learn that separation anxiety is not always as strong in the lower ranking subordinate horses in a group but often the more dominate horses that have the bigger problem. According to new research the more dominate (confident) horses have a harder time because they have the most to lose in their current herd structure. After all they have worked hard to move up the ranks and they don’t want to relinquish their status, where as a lower status horse could more easily adjust by being removed and rejoining the herd. I can attest to this research regarding one of my own horses named Atlas. He is a strong dominant horse yet demonstrates high anxiety when removed from the herd.

separation anxiety in horses

But this information is not cut in stone. The individual characteristics of the horse’s personality still remain at the forefront.

So how can we help?

Some will quickly reply if you are a good leader then your horse will follow you and do everything you ask. I agree but what exactly in a good leader made of? Here is where the word “trust” becomes essential and I define a good leader as someone who can consistently demonstrate that they are best suited to take over the decision making process.

I always begin with a solid language of ground training training exercises and would work on these in a comfortable environment for the horse. Usually all this takes is conducting our training sessions in a place so that the horse is able to see the other horses.

By utilizing clicker training which also increases trust and focus we are well on our way for a successful outing. But I wouldn’t go too far at first. I take the horse just out of sight of the other horses but continue asking for attention and focus by playing the games we have established. Like, hey, can you touch that? How about taking two steps back? Now let’s go over here. (Notice I am making all the decisions) The goal is to continue training before the separation anxiety shows up. If the horse shows me that he is uncomfortable we will back up a step to achieve the horse’s sense of safety and then continue (or call it a day and re-establish our connection on the next session).

I will never reprimand a horse for showing anxiety or fear. Instead I will comfort and praise by talking and petting for reassurance demonstrating he is not alone. Good leaders always show they are 100% present.

Shorter sessions and outings are more important than anything else. This way you will be utilizing Classical Conditioning for success then the time frame of your sessions can be expanded. Prevention is the key. Don’t wait for the horse to become anxious, be proactive and turn back before they get upset. That way they will think the separation was no big deal and maybe even interesting.

Here is an example of what I do especially in the spring when the horses really want to eat some fresh grass. Utilizing Mother Nature, my environment and positive reinforcement I will take a horse for a training session where we can create a positive pattern.

While I wait for the grass in the regular paddocks to grow, the grass just outside the last gate always grows quicker so guess where we go? Now the horse can just see the others (they are about one acre distance away) but the horse is also in a very new environment so we stay just outside the gate and I allow the horse to eat the grass. Keeping my presents noted by stroking the horse or moving them a step or two to suggest we eat here or there instead. I watch closely for signs of separation anxiety, like heavy breathing, looking toward the other horses, whinny’s and such. If it is too much for the horse, we return quickly. Could be only two or three minutes the first time. But when we go back the next day or even a few days later, the 2-3 minutes suddenly turns into 5-10! Usually on the 3rd or 4th outing the horse is very comfortable and wanting to stay longer than I can!

Through a process like this I have created trust and leadership as well as setting up a positive experience for the horse. Oh, I love win, win situations!

Separation Anxiety regarding the horse left behind.

In the situation where you have two horses and you take one out for a ride the horse left behind can have a strong case of separation anxiety too. In this case it is much harder to solve.There are a few things you can do.

First pair the anxious horse with another companion if possible. Some owner will use goats, donkey, dogs or cats to ease the pain. If this is not an option (and doesn’t always work) then helping the horse using a training program is the only other alternative.

Start by taking the horse into a stall (or a place that he cannot see the other horse) for very short periods. Sweeten the deal with positive reinforcement using a special treat once they are there. Return them to the herd the moment the treat is done and repeat many times. Follow with larger meals and length of time until the horse is comfortable being alone. What he can’t see won’t hurt him. If this horse is able to stay comfortable for an hour you have a chance to remove the other without too much trouble. But again it will be wise to not go far or for long in the beginning.

Slowly and consistently is the best approach to help separation anxiety in horses.

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