Separation anxiety in horses is a surprisingly common problem. Horses and ponies can form strong bonds, whether family members or not, which means that if and when they are separated. This can cause significant anxiety, fear and stress – even if the separation from their companion is only for a short period of time.
If you’re a horse carer and you want to help calm separation anxiety in your horses, there are a few simple tactics you can implement to help ease any stress.
Horses are Herd Animals
Because horses are herd animals, they thrive in the company of others and in the wild their social attachments are literally a matter of life and death. However, firm friendships between horses can have a downside when the attached pair cannot be separated for a moment without verging on panic. In extreme situations, extremely attached horses cannot stand being out of sight of each other without one or both of the horses exhibiting dangerous and unmanageable behaviour in their efforts to be reunited.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Horses
The signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in horses are unmistakable. Separated horses will usually become very distressed, screaming for each other, pacing in circles in their pastures or stalls, and sometimes becoming aggressive to owners in an effort to be reunited with their companion.
When suffering from separation anxiety, horses can become very distressed and often worked-up to the point where they have to be reunited just so that you can calm both horses down. Separation anxiety in horses is a serious topic but it can be controlled by putting into place some simple daily practices.
Familiarise Your Horse with Separation
If your horse has not yet been separated from his companion, there are methods you can use to familiarise him with the idea of separation for short periods of time.
Begin by setting the groundwork daily. Start by removing your horse from his companion and take him out for a walk around the pasture. If he is listening and behaving well, despite being separated, give him positive reinforcement like a treat before returning back to the stable. Every day, take him a little bit further from his companion and reinforce his obedience to you through treats.
Once your horse is familiar with the idea of being removed from his friends, you shouldn’t have too much trouble leaving him in a pasture by himself or with a new herd of horses.
If Horses Have Bonded Because of Stress
It may be that two horses have bonded because of a stressful situation, such as turmoil or an injury, and they need each other for support. In such cases, it is important you give the horses time to bond and wait until they are healthy and more trusting of people before splitting them up. This can be a time-consuming process, but the horses need to know they can trust you and that you have their best interests in mind.
Give Your Horse Basic Education
Once you’ve eliminated any underlying causes of stress in both horses, it is time to provide them with some basic education. Up until this moment, your horse has been relying on the comfort and reliability of their companion, but they need to learn to listen to and obey you above all other distractions.
During these basic training sessions, focus on taking your horse out to an area where he can still see and hear background noise and distractions, and then command their attention. Have your horse carry out exercises such as walking through poles and other ground exercises.
Carry out basic training until your horse can follow basic instructions without becoming distracted by background noise or the sight of their companion in the next field. Lots of praise and food rewards go a long way in supporting your horse in establishing a reliability and obedience on you.
Make a Quick Split
It may be that, rather than a slow drawn-out process, your horses benefit from a quick split. Once the stress element has been dealt with and your horses have been trained to obey you and are safe to handle, it’s time to make the split.
The best option is to remove one horse from the stables for at least two weeks. It is worth remembering that if the horses are in ear-shot of each other they can become increasingly distressed. What’s more, the back-and-forth whinnying of two horses within earshot of each other can drive you crazy.
The best method is to stable the horses on opposite ends of the property, so they aren’t going to see or be in contact with each other. During the separation, ensure you put another horse nearby each separated horse as a distraction and to offer the much-missed companionship. Both horses are likely to cry and pace for each other, and this will make you feel awful, but resist the urge to put them back together as it will undo all your hard work.
Request Sedation from Your Vet
If a separated horse is becoming overly anxious, stressed and is not eating, he may be at risk of becoming ill. If you are worried that he isn’t eating or drinking and is losing weight, ask your veterinarian about the possibility of sedation. Calming drugs can be helpful in sedating your horse and helping him relax during this difficult time.
Maintain the Change
Eventually, separated horses will calm down and the days of fighting the urge to put them back together will be eased. It is still possible to socialise both horses, but you must be very watchful for any returning obsession starting to build.
If you have any questions, or you would like some support, call Prime Stables Ltd today.