A combination of innate disposition and previous experience will dictate how well a horse copes with separation and confinement. Separation anxiety in horses is a relatively common condition, and when it occurs, it can be problematic for owners and riders. Separation anxiety usually arises when bonded horses are separated and are unable to touch or see each other. Horses and ponies form strong bonds with their companions, and this means that being separated, even for a short period of time, may mean they experience feelings of fear, anxiety and stress.
Recognising the signs:
If horses are separated from their herd and kept in isolation for even short periods of time, they might display several behaviors consistent with separation anxiety. Common signs include:
- Vocalisation: Horses may often result to high volumes of abnormal vocalisation and calling out in effort to contact their companions.
- Shaking or trembling: Horses may shake or tremble while being ridden, led or simply while standing.
- Sweating/ increased heart rate: Horses may show signs of increased heart rate or increased sweating. This may often be considered abnormal regarding the work or circumstances the horse has been presented with.
- Unwillingness to eat/ drink: Horses may suffer loss of appetite and show unwillingness to eat and/ or drink.
- Rearing/ Kicking out/ Bucking: Horses may strike with their front legs or kick out with their back legs. This behaviour may also escalate to bucking and rearing.
- Spooking or bolting: Horses may spook and then bolt, which means to run off. Horses may bolt while being ridden or led.
- Pacing/ Fence Walking: Horses may actively pace and walk fences when separated from or when unable to make physical/ visual contact with their companions.
- Weaving and stall walking: Horses may weave-walk from side to side or sway. Horses may walk around in circles rather than bob side-to-side.
- Pawing: Horses may result to pawing (digging at the ground) whilst under saddle, stabled or tied to a float etc
Prevention and Treatment:
While there are many excellent ways to help horses overcome separation anxiety, prevention is equally important, and steps can be taken to prevent horses from developing intense social bonds in the first place. Steps for prevention can include systematically exposing young horses to separation from their companions at an early stage. Getting them used to the comings and goings of their herd mates in an organised gradual way while they are young can help them adjust to such behaviors that may become routine later during their working life. If a young horse seems stressed by separation, it can be exposed to gradually increasing distances of separation, avoiding any explosive panic events that might set the horse up for future panic.
If you believe your horse already suffers from separation anxiety, you could try some simple exercises in a safe fenced area within proximity to their companions. You could start with basic exercises performed close by and within sight of their companions. Initially you could start with some simple groundwork exercises aimed at getting your horse listening, focused on you and behaving well. Initially keep training sessions short, gradually extending length and complexity of tasks as time goes by. Also ensure you reward your horse with something positive, like a treat or a groom at the completion of each session. Repeat these exercises often as possible, slowly moving further from your horse’s companions. Exercises such as this help get your horse listening to you, whilst reinforcing obedience and through distraction can gradually build you horses confidence about being separated from companions.
Once you feel comfortable that you can safely ride out, continue to encourage your horse to listen to you. Whether it be whilst hacking out in company or alone; keep tasks/ exercises simple initially; asking primarily for focus to always remain on you. Even if you are hacking out and following another horse, you can concentrate on simple tasks such as having your horse walking slightly to the side so you’re walking on your own track. You can keep practicing obedience to your aids by giving your horse things to do like changes of pace or circling around objects, gradually increasing the distance you can take from your riding companions. If your horse starts to become anxious, calmly try a small circle to keep you safe until things settle.
Some horse owners have found great success in pairing anxious horses with other animal companions, including smaller ponies, goats, donkeys, chickens and dogs etc. It has been found that many horses find comfort in the presence of other animals and this approach can successfully be seen working on horses that suffer separation anxiety whilst stabled or during transport.
Regarding medications and supplements there are no long-term quick fixes for separation anxiety in horses. However, some medications used to calm horses, such as Ranvets’ Calm Paste that contains ingredients such as Tryptophan, Magnesium and B-Vitamin can prove to be helpful. To be most effective, behaviour modification exercises and medication programs for separation anxiety should be tailored specifically to address the behaviour and requirements of your horse on an individual basis.
Written by Michael-j Goddard