Separation anxiety in horses *H&H VIP*

  • Separation anxiety occurs when a horse is parted from others, or occasionally from a person. Some can cope as long as other horses — any horses — are around. Others, however, have bonded to one horse in particular and become anxious when separated, even when other horses are present.

    The degree of distress depends on the individual. Some will be reluctant to eat, or may occasionally whinny, while others enter such a state of blind panic that they can easily injure themselves attempting to reach the other horse.

    When separation takes place, a part of the brain responsible for fear — the amygdala — is activated. Horses have one of the largest amygdala of any species and so are always primed for fear.

    Separation anxiety is based on instinct and survival. Horses are prey animals, so being isolated from members of the same species (conspecifics) makes them vulnerable to predators. Despite thousands of years of domestication, they are still hardwired to need the company of other horses.

    Whether or not a horse becomes anxious when parted from others can depend on circumstances. He may be happy to be separated in a situation in which he is confident, but less so in a novel environment, such as at a show.

    Horses younger than five years old are more likely to suffer, maybe because their social bonds and status are not yet secure or because their training is less established.

    Ultimately, a horse with separation anxiety will be more motivated to seek his friends than to listen to your aids.

    Natural needs

    Horses are more likely to cope with challenges in life if their ethological and training needs have been met.

    Ethology describes the behaviours that horses are hardwired to perform. We know that horses:
    • are highly social creatures that need the company of their own kind;
    •  normally graze for around 16 hours a day, so have a psychological and a physiological need to chew for most of the time; and
    • would habitually travel vast distances, so need daily turnout to be able to express normal behaviours.

    Restricting or preventing any of these needs often results in higher levels of stress, even if the horse appears externally to be OK.

    Horses can also have higher stress levels if training is not clear and consistent. Training should be based on removal reinforcement, where any pressure applied as an aid is immediately released as soon as the horse offers the desired response.

    It is also important that horses are trained to maintain self-carriage. Use of the rider’s leg to keep a horse moving forward or the rein to prevent him from rushing can result in habituation to the aid and can also cause anxiety, due to constant pressure that the horse is unable to resolve.

    Inconsistency or confusion regarding signals, whether the horse is being led or ridden, can lead to low-grade but chronic stress. Any source of chronic stress increases anxiety, which may manifest itself as out-of-context behaviour such as aggression, fence walking, spookiness and separation anxiety.

    ‘Cold turkey’ or chemicals?

    Removing a horse’s companion and expecting him to “get over” his attachment involves a process called flooding.

    This means overwhelming him with something he finds aversive and hoping he will learn to cope. The process is incredibly stressful for horses and is not recommended. Some will eventually learn to cope but many will become even more anxious about being separated, which makes retraining particularly difficult.

    Medication can be used. A new product called Confidence EQ contains an equine appeasing pheromone (EAP). This is a chemical that mares produce around the mammary glands, which gives confidence to the foal. It is now available in a gel that you can apply to your horse’s nostrils.

    There are numerous calming supplements on the market, most of which contain high levels of magnesium. This acts as a mild sedative and so may dampen down the anxiety response in some cases.

    Your vet may suggest a sedative. This can be useful in an emergency situation — if a horse is placed on box rest, for example. Always ensure you are complying with competition rules while using medication.

    With any product, it is important to realise that they do not solve the underlying problem. Retraining is important to create a happy horse.

    Following cues

    It is possible to retrain a horse, as long as his ethological and training needs are being met.

    Never get frustrated with a horse when he is anxious. If you were scared of spiders and a large one ran across your desk, imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted at you.

    Be aware, too, of how you may unknowingly influence your horse. Stay calm and work on getting your horse to respond immediately and lightly to your aids — the more he quietly concentrates on you, the less he will focus on his anxiety.

    Many people expect their horse to follow them when led in-hand, but he takes the movement of their legs as his cue to move. This can be confusing when they then tie him up and walk away. Instead, give him a cue from the lead rope and make sure he starts walking before you do. He should also step backwards from a lead rope cue (not a voice aid or a hand on his chest, for example), while you keep your feet still.

    Horses suffering from separation anxiety tend to fidget. There is a correlation between how fast a horse’s legs are moving and the volume of the fear response. The key exercise to teach these horses is “park”.

    It is never too late to retrain a horse. The sooner the problem is addressed, however, the easier it
    is to resolve.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 22 December 2016