Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Horses

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Horses are naturally herd animals and while an equine friendship can seem super sweet, your horse may become agitated when he is apart from his buddies. This is a classic case of separation anxiety. And while fairly common amongst equines, it can pose serious problems for both owners and riders when it does occur.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a disorder that occurs in canines and other animals that exhibit frantic behavior when left home alone. In horses, it is the apprehension that arises when bonded equines are unable to touch or to see one another. While most horses enjoy the company of others, separation anxiety in horses is much more about instinct and survival than a simple desire to mingle with other equines.

But unlike dogs, a horse is typically upset by isolation from other horses, not from humans. Horses are naturally herding creatures, and rely on their social groups for safety as well as companionship. While safety from predators may not pose a risk for domesticated horses, the need for equine contact is deeply ingrained in prey species.

While a certain amount of distress is normal in the life of an animal that has social attachments, severe anxiety when being separated does have its drawbacks.

Signs and Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Horses

If you remove your horse from his herd and keep him isolated, even for a short amount of time, he may start displaying some symptoms of separation anxiety. Some signs of equine separation anxiety may include:

  • Running the fence line
  • Reduced grazing time
  • Increased vocalization
  • Chronic stress
  • Self injury

A Source of Suffering

Some form of separation is unavoidable in virtually every equine’s life. Even in the wild, changing groups for young horses is a common occurrence. Feral horses tend to stay in stable groups throughout their lives with the exception of younger herd-mates. A study of American Mustangs found that 80 percent of these horses between the ages of three and five disperse from their natural groups.

Horses That Are Prone to Equine Separation Anxiety

Any horse can be capable of experiencing some form of separation anxiety, but some are more prone to this disorder than others. Dominant horses in a herd tend to be more vulnerable to equine separation anxiety than their subordinates as they have much more to lose.

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They have well respected positions amongst their group, which they do not want to relinquish. While subordinate horses can easily join another herd in a low-ranking position, a dominant horse is highly unlikely to overtake a high-ranking position within another group.

Another critical characteristic is your horse’s individual personality. If your horse is not confident in himself, he may be prone to separation anxiety.

Easing Separation Anxiety in Your Horse

Separation anxiety is not only harmful to horses, but hazardous to humans as well. A horse that is herd-bound can pose some serious threats to himself, his owner, and his riders. There are a number of things that can be done to ease the pain of separation anxiety in your horse, and even to avoid it entirely.

The first thing is to work on eliminating bad behaviors from the ground. Start with leading your horse away from his herd mates before ponying the horse on short trail rides. Mounting your horse while he is calm ensures his safety as well as your own.

If you need to separate two equine buddies, it’s vital that you’ve laid the groundwork for a successful split. Firstly, ensure that both horses are in good health as separating them can cause physical stress.

Eliminate other sources of stress in your horse’s environment. For example, if your horses have just moved to a new stable, give them time to settle in before separating them.

You can also improve your steed’s ground manners to fine-tune his ability to focus on you instead of his other half during the separation. Take him to a ring where he can still see his equine friend or herd and work on halting, leading, and backing.

Regardless of your horse’s age, gender, or job, he needs to interact with other equines and have regular close contact with herd mates. It is up to you, as well as your horse’s trainer and riders, to help him overcome his separation anxiety issues.

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