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.

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