Jun 252012

As an equine behaviourist one of the common reasons people contact me for help is separation anxiety – their horse isn’t coping when taken away from other horses or when left alone. Sometimes horses form such a strong bond or attachment to a particular equine friend that even if other horses are present they can’t cope with being apart. When owners want to ride or bring their horse in from the field at different times it can be very stressful for both horse and owner – some of my clients have had to arrange elaborate yard rules for turning in and out to avoid horses jumping fences, vocalising, or cantering up and down the fence-line. I have even had cases when horses have developed the dangerous habit of jumping out of their stables to avoid being left alone when the other horses in their yard are turned out before them. Some people are turning towards individual turnout systems to prevent separation anxiety from developing but I argue that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water…. there is no need to deny horses a social life – they can learn to be alone at times.

Why do horses not like to be alone?

Horses are social herd animals. Naturally, during the first four weeks of a horse’s life, foals associate mainly with their mothers but after their first month they spend more time with other foals of a similar age. Foals play and mutually groom together and partly because these two activities work best in pairs, they tend to pair up and form close friendships.

Horses living in stable herds usually choose a partner that is the same age, sex and size as themselves but if this is not possible they will form a relationship with any horse available – and if no horses are available they sometimes become attached to other animals – such as goats or donkeys. In the domestic setting it is positive when two horses form a strong bond because social interaction is important for their well-being. I would not recommend separating horses who are attached to each other in an attempt to ‘prevent’ separation anxiety, we just need to teach them to cope with being apart at times.

Horses have a priority of needs and if they do not feel safe they are unable to perform other aspects of their ethogram (repertoire of natural behaviours such as eating, drinking, exploring etc) and are unable to respond to training. This means that if a horse doesn’t feel safe without other horses present he will be unable to perform other behaviours, such as grazing (in the same way that we might find it difficult to eat when we are worried about something, or find it difficult to sleep after watching a scary movie). This is why having access to hay in the stable, or grass in a field, is not enough to distract a horse that has ‘separation anxiety’.

The solution…

Sadly some of the ways that people try to address separation anxiety instead make it worse. There is a growing tendency for yards to offer ‘individual turnout’ as a selling point. The main rationalisation is that this will cause fewer injuries from horses kicking and biting each other (avoidable if horses are introduced to each other appropriately and if there are enough resources so that the horses do not need to compete for them), but often individual turnout is also said to avoid problems with horses forming strong bonds and thus avoiding separation anxiety. How sad – not being allowed to make friends and do all the things that horses should do when hanging out together to avoid the possibility that the friendship will be so important to them that they will fret when they are separated! There is a better way – we can help the horse to have the confidence to be relaxed in the field, stable or yard when alone or away from other horses or their close friends.

This is a gradual process consisting of five main aspects:

* Removing the predictors of anxiety by changing the pattern of events leading to separation from the other horses. For example, it is important to identify the point at which the horse becomes anxious. If it is when a head collar is brought into the field to catch the horse’s friend we need to break the association of the head collar being a predictor of being separated by repeatedly putting the head collar on and taking it off but not resulting in separation.

* Very gradually building-up of time away from the other horses; starting from just a few metres away from the other horses for just a few minutes and building up the time and distance gradually (the time-frame will depend on the individual horse).

* Making the time alone pleasurable so that the horse learns to associate being away from other horses with positive experiences. This might include being fed, or groomed, or trained using reward-based training methods.

* Ensuring that the horse doesn’t have any bad experiences when away from other horses as this could reinforce the fear and anxiety of being alone.

* Building up the horse’s confidence in people so that he can draw some reassurance from people and not just other horses.

It is important to be able to read your horse’s body language to be aware of the point at which he is first becoming anxious so that you don’t expect too much too soon. Early signs of anxiety in horses are triangulation of the eye, muscle tension, tail swishing and displacement behaviours such as pawing the ground.

The process of teaching a behaviour gradually is called ‘shaping’ – we think about all the small stages, or steps of a ladder, that must be done on the way to the desired behaviour (being alone without being anxious). Thus, if a horse becomes anxious when he is removed from a field on his own, steps might include being caught and groomed in the field before being released again, then being caught and taking some steps to the gate before being released again, then being caught and going through the gate before turning around and being turned out etc. building up gradually to being taken further away from the herd for longer. Note that a step from being led away from the herd but in sight of the herd to turning a corner so that he can’t see other horses is a significant step. Each step should not be repeated in sequence, rather, when the horse has completed a few ‘steps’ they should be mixed up so that sometimes less is asked, sometimes more. If you need to help your horse to be able to cope with being alone a qualified behaviourist will be able to help you design appropriate steps in the process for your horse taking into consideration the set-up of your yard and other practicalities.

It might sound like a drawn out process but if done properly horses can learn very quickly that being alone at times is a positive experience – and surely better than resorting to individual turnout.

These videos from YouTube show the classic signs of a stressed horse due to their companion being out on a ride while they are left in the field alone.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXrHtIAp154
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1on309QhJk


Jun 182012

For those embarking on training their horses and wishing to use mostly or completely training which is based in positive reinforcement, the problem of how to encourage the behaviours they want to train to occur, so that they may be rewarded and propagated, is often encoutered. In conventional training desired behaviours are often encouraged through the use of pressure and there is the misconception that only free-shaping is available to those who practise positive reinforcement training. In free-shaping the trainer waits for the horse to perform the desired behaviour and then rewards its presentation. However, there are methods which can be used to encourage behaviour without the use of pressure or, indeed, waiting for the behaviour to occur of its own volition.

Targeting is the most popular positive method of encouraging wanted behaviour in the horse. For the purpose of targeting the horse is taught, using clicker training or another positive reinforcement method, to go to or follow a target object on command. This can be a static marker or a movable object. Once trained, the horse can easily learn to perform new and/or wanted behaviours by following the target. Full guides on how to teach targeting can be found in most clicker training books and my own book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-Your-Horse-Learning-Behaviour/dp/1405191643/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339968870&sr=8-1).

Teaching your horse to target can be invaluable for training both basic and complex behaviours; really the only limitation to training is the imagination of the trainer. Once the wanted behaviour is reliably occurring in response to the target, it can be put on an appropriate cue and the target is gradually removed over a short period of time. A common misconception in clicker training is that the target remains as part of the trained behaviour forever; however, this does not represent the goal of target training.

Some common applications of targeting training in horse training include:

Leading, head-lowering, staying in a desired location, basic safety behaviours (e.g. backing and coming on cue), head collar/bridling routines, mounting/dismounting, spook busting, teaching lungeing, and loading into trailers or horse boxes.

Target training has also been studied scientifically, and been observed to be an effective method of horse training. The links below describe research which investigated training horses to load using targeting.




The second most popular method of positively encouraging the horse to present a wanted behaviour is ‘lure and reward’. The term ‘lure’ can often put people off due to negative associations with the word; a better name for this technique is possibly ‘guide and reward’. At its core the method is very similar to the previously describe target training, the horse follows a food guide, thereby performing a desired behaviour and receiving reward. Most trainers reward from a treat held in the other hand. Obviously doing this training with horses who have not yet learnt not to mug is unwise. However, other than this caveat, the training can be very effective and enjoyable for both horse and trainer. Again, once the horse is reliably performing the behaviour with the target a cue is given and the guide gradually removed. The guide should not be the cue. This process should not take longer than a few sessions, especially for a basic behaviour. Interestingly, this is one of the most commonly used training methods employed by respected dog trainers. Again comprehensive instructions on how to successful use this method with your horse can be found on the internet or in appropriate books.

Finally, using a cue to mean ‘well done, keep going’ as well as a separate ‘good, finish’ cue, can be useful for encouraging the expression of new desired behaviours. How you apply this in training will depend on the individual preferences of the trainer and the previously employed method of positive training. Personally, I like to use to different sounding clicks, which I make with my mouth rather than a clicker, but this is not the only possible method of application. One click sound means ‘continue as you are’, the other communicates ‘finish’. This allows me a more elegant flow of communication to the horse, as well as an active means of encouraging the horse to perform a wanted behaviour in a positive manner. Once the horse has performed the desired behaviour, they may be given the finish signal to indicate they did well and to rest and wait for reward (particular useful if the horse is at a distance from the handler).

If you would like more information on these training techniques briefly discussed here, please feel free to comment or message me at my email address (Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk).