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Separation anxiety in horses

Horses have evolved to live in herds, so being left on their own can naturally make them feel stressed and anxious. Justine Harrison, Equine Behaviourist, explains what separation anxiety is and offers ways to help your horse feel safe on his own
Separation anxiety in horses

Does your horse ever panic and become anxious when left on their own or when a certain companion that they have a strong bond with is taken away? This could be a sign that your horse is suffering from separation anxiety.

The signs of separation anxiety include:

  • increased heart rate
  • reluctance to eat or drink
  • increased passing of droppings/urinating
  • trembling
  • sweating
  • vocalization (neighing)
  • box- and fence-walking
  • rearing, bucking and napping when ridden 

A horse’s reaction to separation anxiety will differ from horse to horse, with some only showing mild signs such as looking for their friend, while others may panic so much that they put themselves and others around them in danger from injury.  

Horses with severe separation anxiety are likely to be stressed and anxious all of the time and not just when the separation occurs. It can cause horses to be constantly on edge and hyper-vigilant even when they’re not on their own. This can make every day management for the owner very difficult and can lead to horses being moved on, retired or even put to sleep.  

What causes separation anxiety?

If we look at how horses have evolved to live naturally, they are prey animals and live in herds where they have safety in numbers. Other herd members can help keep them safe by alerting them of danger and watching over them while they rest and sleep. Horses isolated and on their own are more likely to be attacked by predators. Horses also naturally form strong attachments and will often ‘pair bond’ for life with another horse that is similar in age and build to themselves.

When you compare this natural lifestyle to how domestic horses are kept, the differences can be vast with horses kept in stables and individual turnout paddocks, unable to touch and carry out natural behaviours such as mutual grooming and playing. It’s also not unusual for horses to be moved from yard to yard throughout their lives making it hard for them to form strong bonds with other horses. This upheaval and change can cause a lot of stress in some horses and make them even more clingy and anxious when separated from other horses. 

There are also horses who are completely isolated or have very little contact with other equines and this can cause them to become extremely anxious. To a horse, being on their own makes them vulnerable to predators and therefore hyper vigilant - any lapse in concentration could result in their death. Horses who don’t feel safe enough to lie down to sleep may suffer from sleep deprivation which brings its own health and behavioural issues. 

Can you help a horse with separation anxiety?

By making changes to how a horse is managed, and by followed a retraining programme, most cases of separation anxiety can be significantly improved. Even horses with severe separation anxiety can have their confidence restored with a sympathetic step-by-step approach.

The main focus when resolving separation anxiety is to retrain the horse’s reaction to being by him or herself by boosting their confidence and rewarding them for being separated from others. 

It’s a common misconception that, if you keep horses on their own in a separate paddock and away from others all the time, they won’t become attached. However, this often has the opposite effect and when they do finally meet another horse, they will be even more clingy and desperate to stay with them.  

Step-by-step guide to improving separation anxiety

  • 1

    Start small

    Begin by taking your horse away from his friend for just a few moments and then immediately re-join them. While they are apart, ensure they have a small feed or pile of forage to eat so they associate being apart with something good. Gradually build up the time and distance.

  • 2

    Repeat and gradually extend the process

    Each time you repeat the process, add a few seconds time, or distance (perhaps just one step further), but only as long as your horse has remained relaxed. If they become anxious, then go back a few steps and start again.  

  • 3

    Try making changes to your horse’s management

    This could be moving stables, changing field mates or mixing up the order that horses are turned in or out to prevent anxiety. 

  • 4

    For pair-bonded horses

    For horses that are pair-bonded, try giving them the company of another well-socialised, confident individual while practicing short separations. If this isn’t possible, a last resort could be a friend of another species such as a donkey, goat or sheep.

  • 5

    Find a qualified behaviourist

    In severe cases, it is advisable to employ a qualified behaviourist to help create a step-by-step programme to find the best long-term solution.

About the Author

Justine is a certified equine behaviour consultant. She applies the science of behaviour and learning to help you understand and solve horse behaviour.

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