Sunday 27 June 2021

How to help horses with separation anxiety

 Three blurry pictures of horses in the distance... this struck me leaving the yard tonight, and I wanted to photograph from a distance so as not to attract them to me. 

What struck me? That all 3 of these horses, Harvey, Paddy and Tigger, have been described as suffering from separation anxiety. Paddy (the grey) was most extreme, and when he first came to me, he would quickly sweat up and even get colicky if he was separated from certain horses, even if others were still around. Tigger would jump pretty much anything to stay close to other horses. Harvey was never separated from the others after he arrived at my yard nearly 2 years ago, kept an anxious eye on them, and was quick to follow if they left. 

So, these pictures show all of these horses feeling OK about being on their own. Not hard evidence I admit, you'll have to take my word for it! 

How did this happen? Every case is different, but it is very common, and was the case for all of these 3 horses, that their extreme worry about being more than a few feet from companions was due to their overall mental well-being - feeling generally stressed, uncertain, unsafe - leading to a need for the security of other horses. 

In the past, I would have approached separation anxiety in a client's horse with training based solutions. Using systematic desensitisation/counter conditioning/shaping, trying to sensitively help the horse to learn that they were OK on their own. This can ask a lot of the client, careful training with excellent reading of body language, and often a lot of time. And it won't be truly effective if the horse doesn't come to feel truly safe without the other horse(s). 

That feeling of safety may have roots which are not addressed by such training. For example, pain issues may leave a horse feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Similarly a new environment, other stressful events, lack of choice, food deprivation, unavoidable aversives - to name but a few - can leave an individual horse feeling insecure and in need of the company of others. 

So - what did we do with these 3 horses that worked? Adapt their environment, management and interactions to optimise physical and mental well-being. For example, ensuring constant access to forage (albeit often soaked hay to keep weight down), as much choice as possible, ensuring physical needs are met, minimising aversives and giving constant access to other horses.

 In all cases (and I have seen this with many client's horses too), as they feel more secure in themselves, they start making choices to separate a little from the others. For example, the others wanted to come in and shelter from the sun and the flies today, Tigger preferred to stay out and graze; so he stayed out on his own, out of sight of the others and more than 150M from them. Initially, this might be a lesser distance, and the horse might begin to feel uncomfortable on his own - which he can resolve by re-joining the others. 

A hard thing to take on board sometimes - we like to 'do' something to 'fix' a problem like this. That the 'doing' involves establishing physical and emotional safety for your horse (as far as possible) in all aspects of their lives, then having patience as the feeling of security takes root and grows may feel too passive, but is wonderfully effective.

Saturday 9 January 2021

Attachment theory and horses - serve and return

 A few people have been writing about attachment theory and horses recently, so I thought I'd 'go public' with this little piece relating to attachment theory that I was putting together as part of the Equine Behaviour Affiliation's Applied Behaviour Course. 

Serve and return. If it's new to you, this video may help 

InBrief: The Science of Neglect

So, that's a good introduction for humans, and particularly the importance of serve and return for children. 

As adults, this still matters - for example just brief eye contact with a trusted friend can really help to calm you when you are feeling worried. 

How about horses? The relationships that are central to a horse's life will hopefully be equine, but aspects of attachment theory can help us to think about how we interact with them too. 

Here's a little clip of Harvey, an ex racehorse who lives at my yard. Harvey has just been attacked by his food bowl! He somehow managed to flip it up and fire food into his face and got a big fright. 5 minutes later he is still not eating. 

Here, I think we have some serve and return. He touches me (and it's not for treats - he knows all about my right pocket!), I respond, and he then feels safe enough to eat. He repeats this movement a few times before really settling.

Completing this serve and return might seem a small thing to us, but think how you feel when you try to catch that friend's eye when you are worried and she looks away or ignores you. It's not so different, and can make a huge difference to the horse and really strengthen a relationship.