Don’t leave me! An introduction to equine separation anxiety

“I’ve met so many people who know their horses have separation anxiety because they can’t ride them without one or both horses completely panicking – they just genuinely don’t believe that anything can be done and often despair and give up, thinking they are stuck with this and will have to sell the horses or buy more.

The last person I worked with literally thought it was impossible – she thought there was no way on earth the situation could be improved.

Many owners don’t yet understand the role and power that behavioral therapy can play in horse ownership, it can take time and effort but it’s so worth it.

Some background….

Horses are herd animals and as such, naturally feel more at home in company than alone. When a horse needs to be removed from the herd or from his paddock-mate, there will always be a degree of separation anxiety, often for both horses. “Safety in numbers” is an important part of the psychological makeup of herding animals, and most likely the strongest root of separation anxiety and in thus when this particular source of safety is challenged or changed, problems can arise in the horse’s mind.

Here, the Friends part of the 3 F’s (forage, friends and freedom which are essential to a horse’s mental well-being) come into play. I will be blogging about this soon.

Horses can get very emotionally dependent on their friends in the herd, as herding is a deeply ingrained survival mechanism which begins at birth for a horse. The first thing a foal knows is its mother – it needs its mother for survival and sees itself in great danger without its mother, and the mother feels a great need to protect her foal. Once the foal is weaned into the herd, vital friendships are formed. The herd not only ‘trains’ the foal but becomes his biggest source of physical and psychological security and comfort.

Thus, these roots of the separation anxiety can be traced back to the feelings of dependence and protection experienced between a mare and her foal and more importantly, the horse and his herd / friends / teachers, and what happens when those feelings and horse-horse bonds are interfered with or threatened.

While mild separation anxiety is manageable and doesn’t cause a huge disturbance or pose a threat to the horse, some horses experience severe separation anxiety.

Even mild anxiety should be addressed, but with severe separation anxiety, the horse becomes panicked which could lead to him harming himself or the owner / rider. As the separation lengthens, you will generally find that he won’t settle, and the build-up of anxiety becomes traumatic for everyone. Owners often eventually give up trying to separate their horses altogether, which can be very limiting to both owner and horse.

A common example of this separation anxiety manifesting is where an owner has two horses sharing a paddock. When attempting to ride one of them out, upon leaving its paddock-mate, the horse can become too distressed to ride safely or comfortably. The horse that is left behind often becomes more distressed and panicked than the horse riding out. The horse left behind is where I start my work.

Direct methods: dealing with the problem head-on

Owners may resort to having to get a third horse or always ride accompanied by the second horse as a means of dealing with this, but this is not at all necessary as the good news is that separation anxiety can be treated successfully!

I will elaborate on the exact techniques involved in upcoming posts, but in short, the process can begin as simply as gradually separating the horses for short periods of time until they get used to being apart from their paddock mates.

This is much like the techniques (and there are many) some breeders use when they remove a foal from the mother, doing it in incremental stages over a period of time.

The crux of this work is that you need to emulate his herd leader / friends and make him feel as safe and secure with you as he does with his paddock-mates.

Indirect methods: building solid foundations…

Horses who are mentally balanced and confident in their environment are much less likely to exhibit extreme forms of anxiety. So before even addressing the actual issue of the anxiety it is advisable to build up your horse’s self-confidence by doing confidence building exercises and focus work.  Doing these exercises will help your horse see you as a strong leader and make the process of separation training a lot easier. These topics I will also be covering in upcoming blog posts.

Doing the confidence building and focusing exercises while the horse is undergoing its separation training can be very beneficial to getting an anxious herd-bound horse ok with being left alone.

The holistic approach

Ideally both of these methods should be combined to get the best result. This groundwork and trust-building means that your horse will come to consider you as an important member of the herd. He comes to consider you as a safe and secure leader and will feel safe and happy when you take him out alone, as he now feels he is with a member of the herd. Read more about ground work here.

Confidence building exercises with the horse left behind will teach him distress tolerance skills and ensure the he, too is able to cope with the separation.

Naturally some horses are more herd-oriented than others and will struggle more with this work. There may be some remnants of anxiety when they are away from their friends, but the extreme distress can be addressed successfully.

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