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Equine separation anxiety

Anxiety caused by separation from friend

Friendships and bonds

Horses and ponies nearly always form really strong friendships and bonds. Horses they say, form bonds which are 10 times stronger than we humans do.

Many form such strong friendships with other horses they become a problem for their owners. Horses often come to rely very heavily on those bonds and find it really stressful to leave or be separated from their friend even for a short time. When this happens if often means they are very anxious horses. Taking one of them out for a hack or to a show and leaving the other at home can be a really big problem for the owners and riders.

There are a number of reasons for this sort of anxiety. Those who have at some stage been left alone as youngsters may be fearful of what might happen and this stays with them for ever. (They are animals of prey – they instinctively need the herd for protection.)  Others have been separated from the herd (group they live with) and at that time suffered an experience which caused anxiety or fear.

It is now known and understood, that many are weaned far too quickly. They are separated from the mare and are not yet ready for a life on their own. That very strong and stressful anxiety stays with them for life. Now more people are putting youngsters out in groups together near their mares instead of just separating mares and foals at a few months.

Think before you breed.

  • This arrangement of several youngsters in groups near their mares, is of course more difficult – or virtually impossible for the single owner to arrange.
  • Give thought to this if you are considering breeding from your mare – be mindful of what is now called indiscrimate breeding.

Levels of Anxiety

There are of course different levels of anxiety caused by separation. It needs careful consideration to determine the level of anxiety your horse is suffering. Much thought has to be put into working out how long it will take you to gradually overcome the problem. Although you might have a timetable to work to you may well find that you have to change it as you go along.

Step by Step

As with everything in a horse or ponies life, it must be undertaken step by step. Each step must be overcome before moving on to the next – any one of those steps may take longer than another. You must make a plan and you will be the one who understands when each step has been accomplished satisfactorily. There is no rule of thumb as to how long it will take but you must look to finding a positive association for the horse/s with each tiny separation step you both take.

Horses learn by Association

Horses learn things by ‘association’. The association is an instinct – the horse cannot help himself. Use your knowledge of this learning by ‘association’ process to help him with all your exercises from now on. He instinctively associates either pleasant or unpleasant happenings in his life with what is good or bad in his life. What you do to him results in what he does. You will pay for it one way or the other with good or bad reactions. You must therefore, use this instinct well.

You Pay – or upai

Remember these words – You – Pay – Association – Instinctive.

It might help to remember it as a whole word like this: UPAI.  (or you pay!)

If something pleasant happens to your horse, he will associate whatever occurred just prior to that happening with something good. e.g. If you call him in a nice voice and then offer him his feed, he ‘associates’  the  ‘pleasant and nice’  voice with feed which is something he enjoys.  – here you were paid in kind for being nice to him.

If on the other hand something unpleasant happens (e.g. he were to get a reprimand from you or a perhaps have a wheelbarrow fall over with a crash right behind him) just before being tacked up, he will ‘associate’ that ‘unpleasant’ happening to being tacked up.  He may well after this, be a very nervous/apprehensive horse when being tacked up because he ‘associates’ the ‘unpleasant’ reprimand/loud noise with having his saddle or bridle put on. In other words, you pay for what you do or what has happened to your horse! If it was unpleasant you probably won’t like his reactions. If it was pleasant you will be rewarded by his reactions.

How do you start?

A good plan is to start by feeding them a very small feed separately. As you walk him away from his friend towards his feed, providing he is not at this stage getting stressed and anxious, reward him with kind words and a pat. When you return him to his friend he will once more be back in his comfort zone, remember that he and his friend must be rewarded again with kind words and a pat.

Speaking to the horse is vital – use those kind words well and often as a reward. You must of course bring the small feeds out at the same time, but take one horse away to another area a little way away for its feed. This means that he will be associating that move away with something he enjoys – so you are providing a positive association. Maybe they might still have to be in view of each other.

Gradually though it could be out of site – it will depend on the extent of the anxiety. Initially they may still call, snatch at the food and get stressed, but eventually when they know the other horse is not leaving, (because it is always still there when they return from their food) they will become more settled. If it is still not accomplished – then feed half the feed away from the other horse and the other half back in the stable.

Increasing the feeds/length of time

Gradually you can increase the amount of feed you are giving. This will be lengthening the time spent away from their friend (but at the same time something good is happening). You must remember that you should be reducing the amount of feed fed normally in the stable next to their friend by the amount given in the small feeds – it must be done incrementally. You must take care not to change in any way by weight or type the complete feed ration. When the horse is a little more relaxed about eating away from his friend you can also introduce some hay after the hard feed. Thus you will be slowly but surely be increasing the time spent away from each other.

Back to Basics on the Ground and Bonding

Eventually it should get better – but it could take a while so be prepared to be patient. At the same time as working on the separation at feeding times you must consider starting work on the ground. Now is the time to get back to basics with ground work. This will help you both in many ways. He will hopefully become more trusting of you and you will form a stronger bond between you. Initially lead the horse around yard outside the stable – but keep it all close by and within sight of the friend.

Reward

Once you start leading around, you can do a little groundwork. Ask for halts, and a couple of steps backwards or a turn and halt, or maybe if reversing doesn’t go so well, a halt and walk on and halt again. This is where you are ‘changing the subject’ of his thoughts by changing the exercises regularly and making his brain think about something else.

Use what works for you and your horse. Give a small tit bit or treat when they respond – only one extremely small treat though and always remember, use your voice to reward. At the same time it is important to release any pressure you were using on the head collar for the exercise you asked for – e.g. the halt or backwards stepping. Keep them busy with turning and halting etc. Use your imagination and aid your training at the same time

It might be a good idea to make up some sort of course to walk round. Cones or buckets and poles in the yard for instance could be made into some sort of route and obstacle course to work through, between and over. It is really important though that you remember to reward with your voice and a gentle pat – the positive association works in two ways here – both for training purposes as well as separation.

Obstacles and Safety Warning

Take great care with using obstacles and items on the ground if the horse tends to get really anxious and difficult to control. Having things dotted around in this situation could make it more hazardous and it could be very unsafe. Trying to hold a horse and keep it calm when it is becoming difficult and having poles underfoot has the makings of a disaster. Only start putting things out in the yard to work around when the horses seems to be improving and more relaxed.

Out of Sight Eventually

Depending on the horse/s, you should be able to lead the horse around the corner so that their friend is out of sight. This will of course be a very anxious moment for your horse so as soon as you feel him or her start to get tense, try one of you ground work exercises – halt and ask for three steps of back up. Don’t forget to reward him though by releasing any pressure you have put on the halter etc as soon as he responds to your request. Initially of course you might only spend 10 or 15 seconds around the corner, but each time you do it you must try to keep calm and keep the horses attention focused on something other than being away from the friend.

Consider the Friend

Usually it is just one of the horses who is really suffering from the anxiety. Although the friend may also become worried when you take your horse away so may call and whinny in response. Remember therefore, that the friend must have something to do too – so have his hay net full during these exercises. It would be better to wait until the friend is actually eating the hay before removing your horse to ‘around the corner’.

If the friends hay is on the floor of a stable it would mean the horse has to dip his head to eat and only when he comes up again would he see the horse gone. This would NOT be a good idea if the friend also suffers from high levels of separation anxiety, (he is likely to get more stressed and start calling too) so put the hay in a net at head level by the door so that he can see what is going on.

When to Reward & Timing

You will obviously have to continue to make the time out of site exercise regularly for a short time and then return the horse to his stable and friend. Take care when giving any treat that you give it immediately you START to feel it becoming anxious – if you leave it until it IS anxious you will be rewarding the anxious behaviour. The timing is vital. It is a very very fine line and a serious one to get wrong.

Extend the Groundwork

Once again when your horse is managing to cope with being out of site, you could consider using the poles and buckets or cones to negotiate to give the horse something else to think about.

Comfort Zone and Changing the Subject

You could eventually when things are going better, use a line of cones to bend or weave in and out of. I think of these changes of exercises as changing the subject as I mentioned earlier. If they are thinking of themselves and their stress, you must try to make them think of something else (change the subject).

He will be well out of his comfort zone right now so you must try to keep him occupied. Other exercises you could include in the ground work is to dot poles around to step over or to halt in front of or beside – two poles to walk through and halt between etc. etc. use your imagination and work out a good and interesting obstacle course. Use halts and maybe reverse a few steps or turns etc.

Timely Reminder

It is important to remind yourself about timing once again. Reward only when it seems right and only when you START to feel some anxiousness – never when he IS anxious or you are then rewarding him for becoming anxious. When you return him to his friend it will be returning him to his comfort zone – soon he will start to trust you more now that he knows that each time he returns to his friend after each separation period. If all goes reasonably well though you should try to extend the period spent out of site.

Remember any time you see the start of any anxiousness, ask for a halt and a few steps backwards or change of direction to give your horse something else to focus on. Reward ONLY when you feel it really necessary from now on.

Changing The Groundwork

Once your success rate is good (i.e. with being out of sight of the friend) you can start to do more and different exercises and work. At this stage you are still working on the ground with him. What sort of things you do will depend on your situation, what facilities you have available at your yard and the level training your horse has reached as well as your own experience and expertise. You might be able to start giving a hay net and grooming for a short time. He will associate the slight separation with a hay net and the attention you are providing with the grooming.

Tacking up

You should at some stage tack up – because this may well be a trigger for anxiety. Tack up and do this just before returning the horse to the stable and friend – then untack. You could if it felt right, extend the work to lunging. This would only be sensible if the horse was being sensible and accepting the separation thus far. Only do this if you feel it is safe. Never put yourself or your horse at risk. You should instinctively know when it is time to undertake the next step or steps like this.

Maybe you will just put on the bridle initially, or just a saddle. Eventually you will be able to venture into the school to lunge (especially if the school is in view of the friends stable), then of course you must return to the stable. He will start eventually to associate tacking up and lunging with a return to the stable afterwards. It will take time but keep at it.

Firm but Fair

Be firm and don’t let them walk all over you – they must show respect to you and your space. When things get difficult – change the things you are doing or the direction and bring in another exercise to distract him (i.e. ‘change the subject’). Be firm though with your change, however you must remember that although you are being firm, it must at all times be kind – never be harsh.

Build up Trust

He must trust you. If you are unkind or less than kind even though you are being firm, you will lose any trust you have built up between you. Always be sure he can trust you to remove any pressure if he responds well to you asking him to do something he is unsure of.

How Long?

How long this all takes will, as I said earlier depend on the level of anxiety the horse is going through – I mean of course the level of separation anxiety the horse is suffering. It will also depend on you and how much time you have available to put into it.

How much time? & Keeping a diary of events

It is something you must aim to do every day of the week if possible until it improves. It might seem a long time but keeping a diary will help – this is one way you can really see the improvement too so it helps to keep you motivated. Note down each day what you did and how long it took etc. Make notes of what went well and what didn’t go so well. Not only will you see the improvement but you will see the steps backwards you have had to take at times. The first time it happens will be very depressing but next time you will be able to look back and see how you overcame it.

Consistency

The important thing is to be consistent and not to give in. If you give him an inch he may well take a mile and this is not what you need. Remember, you must be firm but kind and patient.

The Comfort Zone

Be very aware that your horse has a comfort zone and you will be taking him outside of his comfort zone. It would be the same sort of thing that might happen to you if you were asked to do something which you really didn’t like to do. You would need someone to be firm with you to enable you to overcome the anxiousness you felt. If they were unkind and harsh you would most probably feel worse about it. If they were kind at the same time as being firm you would be more likely to respond and have a go at doing whatever it is.

Once your horse is comfortable with some small separation, you can take it a step further. Now is the time to try having a go at putting the tack on when you separate them. Eventually he will become used to this too and accept it as part of the separation, it will become part of his comfort zone. This then is the time to start mounting when the tack is on and he is comfortable.

Continue when you are riding him with similar exercises to those you did before. If you feel him starting to become anxious – i.e. not wanting to do whatever you are asking – even when you are being firm, you should stop. Now ask firmly for a small circle or change of direction (a change of subject). It is vital now to remember to remove the pressure once the horse has completed whatever it is you asked of him – that is his reward and his trust in you will be reinforced.

Riding out

Once he accepts this mounted separation you might then be able to go out with friend on their horse for a quick ride – only a short one. You will have to find a very patient friend but it really will help. Offer to help the friend with something in return. Your horse must maintain his trust in you so maybe you will have to take it really slowly – it could be just up the drive and back to begin with – maybe 20 yards no more. When the anxiousness is less, you can gradually make these walks a little longer. Day by day you can increase the length of separation.

Changing the subject when riding

Remember that you should try to change the subject if things start to get problematical. Work on a little lateral work (forwards and sideways movements). Have some cones along the side of the drive to weave in and out of. On some days, instead of riding, you should revert to doing ground work again. Do not always take the same steps at this stage – variation will help. With patience and by taking it step by step it will improve, but it could take time.

Be firm, fair, kind and patient.

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Paula Clements is Course Director with Lingfield Correspondence provider of equine home study courses.  As a member of the Lingfield Instructor Group Paula is one of 5 professionally qualified BHS riding instructor / coaches who produce equine home study courses. Paula’s love of horses and genuine interest in helping people shines through when you contact her. Please drop her an email if you have any questions or queries about equine studies, are anxious or need help with a horse related problem of your own.

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