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’.
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.