What is Separation Anxiety?
When your horse becomes stressed when separated from other horses, it is called separation anxiety. When a horse experiences this, he may neigh or scream and be generally challenging to handle. Many horses have some degree of separation anxiety when separated from other horses. In mild cases it may be an annoyance to the horse’s owner, but not a significant problem. Some horses experience such separation anxiety that their actions may put them (or you) in danger. It is understandable that horses feel most comfortable when in their herd; for horses, there is safety in numbers.
A horse who becomes stressed or nervous when separated from another horse or horses, demonstrating his anxiety through one or more behaviors is experiencing separation anxiety.
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Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Horses
Should your horse experience separation anxiety, you may notice the following behaviors when he is either leaving other horses or is the one being left (or both):
- Unwillingness to eat
In cases of significant separation anxiety, the behaviors of your horse could lead to his accidently hurting himself or someone else as he tries to be back with the other horses.
Some horses are fine being the one who leaves the herd, however experience stress when they are the one left behind. Others are stressed when having to leave the herd and there are also horses that demonstrate stress whether they are the one leaving or the one being left behind.
In some horses, separation anxiety may be dependent upon the situation. The behavior may be shown only on the trail or in the pasture or barn.
Causes of Separation Anxiety in Horses
Separation anxiety may occur in your horse when he is separated from one or more of the horses that he is with regularly. As horses are herd animals, he may feel uncomfortable being separated from the herd, leading to his distress.
It is thought that some horses are genetically predisposed to experience separation anxiety, perhaps being more likely to develop strong attachments and then be upset by being separated. It is also a possibility, though there is no research to prove this, that the horse’s early experience may contribute to their being more likely to experience separation anxiety. Horses that were weaned too quickly, before they were ready to be on their own may also struggle when separated.
Diagnosis of Separation Anxiety in Horses
Often you can determine that your horse is struggling with separation anxiety without your veterinarian diagnosing the condition. It will be pretty clear to you that your horse or horses are struggling with being separated based on their reactions upon being apart from one another.
Should you not be sure that your horse is experiencing separation anxiety and/or he appears to be losing weight, you can speak with your veterinarian about what you are observing in your horse. If your veterinarian has concerns that a physical issue is causing his behavior, he will conduct a full physical examination to rule out any possible issue to feel confident that your horse is experiencing separation anxiety.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety in Horses
How you work to assist your horse with separation anxiety will be individualized for his particular situation and reaction. To begin, you will want to try to separate him bit by bit. You can lead your horse around the pasture prior to leading him out of the pasture or take him away and bring him right back over and over. While undergoing these efforts, it will be a good idea to reinforce that being apart from his friends can be positive. Creating new and positive connections with being separated will be key when working to change his behavior.
Another big component, particularly when your horse experiences anxiety when you lead him away from his friends, is that you want to be someone that your horse wants to be with and that he trusts. Part of becoming someone your horse trusts is to not respond to his anxiety with anger or punishment. Showing your horse that your actions are predictable and that being with you can result in good outcomes, you can earn his trust and he may feel more comfortable being with you while separated from the others.
The following will help to build a trusting relationship with your horse:
- Work and spend time with your horse where he feels calm, which will likely be close to the herd
- Work with him on coming into a calm posture by his poll being level with or below his withers; you can apply gentle downward pressure to rock his head down - do this without pulling on the rope
- Encourage him to respect your space through bending around you and not pushing into you; make sure to move if you feel you are in any danger
- Understand that he may feel the need to move when feeling stressed; take control of where he goes, leading him or walking him in a circle
- Increase the distance from the herd gradually; should you see signs of stress, try the things mentioned above to help calm him down
- If your horse is unable to calm down, then take him back to where he feels comfortable
Your veterinarian can recommend an equine behavior specialist who will be able to assess the demeanor of your horse when anxious and can work with you in helping your horse to feel secure. The specialist can offer suggestions on reinforcement practises that will benefit your efforts.
Recovery of Separation Anxiety in Horses
Should you have your horse from a young age, it is a good idea to separate him on occasion from pasture mates so that they can become accustomed to the other horses coming and going on a regular basis. Should the young horse seem stressed when separation occurs, you can gradually increase the distances of separation so that he may adjust.