Many horses struggle when separated from others. The behaviour of such ‘herd bound’ horses are a common complaint of horse owners. These horses may vocalize, pace, run the fence line, or be difficult or dangerous to handle or ride. This distress at separation may occur when horses aren’t within eyesight of others, or it may occur when horses are simply separated by barriers, such as a fence line or stall wall.

Root causes

There is good news and bad news when it comes to these problematic behaviours. The good news? By gaining a deeper understanding of why it is happening, horse owners become better able to address the issue with their current horses and can minimize the likelihood it occurs in their future horses. The bad news? It is completely normal – even understandable – for horses to become distressed when separated from others.

While in recent history we have selectively bred the horse to have traits suited to specific jobs, we have not bred out the basic, collective need that all horses share to live in social groups.

For millions of years, evolution has shaped the behaviour of horses, who have evolved to live in social groups, in part to increase the likelihood they survive as both a species and as individuals. Horses are almost always within at least eyesight of one another. There are rare exceptions, such as the brief period of time when a mare may voluntarily self-isolate to give birth.

While in recent history we have selectively bred the horse to have traits suited to specific jobs, we have not bred out the basic, collective need that all horses share to live in social groups.


Two horses touching over a fence.

For some horses who have learned that temporary isolation is to be feared, even the removal of a neighbour away from a shared fenceline can cause extreme distress. (photo courtesy Lauren Fraser –


Without training, all horses will become stressed when involuntarily separated from others or socially isolated. Separation results in stress for horses and triggers fearful emotions. The resulting behaviours are attempts by the horse to reunite with others. When we are able to see the behaviours labelled as ‘herd bound’ for what they truly are, a natural response to a stressful event, we are better able to help our horses and achieve training-related goals.

In addition to the evolutionary development of the species, other factors impact how horses respond as individuals when socially isolated. For example, genetics may influence the form of behaviours or the extent to which horses display stress-related behaviours when isolated. Management practices such as isolation in stalls or premature weaning (human-directed weaning at four to six months of age) can affect the behaviour of the individual horse. Prior attempts to address the stress-related behaviours, such as tying a horse out of sight on a ‘patience pole,’ can also negatively affect how individuals respond when separated.

Management techniques

While distress when socially isolated may be a normal response, it isn’t convenient, or safe, for anyone handling or managing the horse. In addition to the human’s safety, it is equally important to consider that this separation distress compromises horse welfare. Long-term, this can negatively affect the horse’s health, immunity, ability to learn, and their athletic potential. Left unaddressed, the problem usually worsens over time.

Thankfully, it is possible to train horses to accept temporary social isolation or separation from others. If we want a horse to view an experience such as separation as neutral or even pleasant, we are wise to never show them that thing is unpleasant in the first place. In light of this, gradually teaching the naïve horse to accept separation or isolation is best done in a way that doesn’t trigger stress or fear. This approach nets the best results.

However, once a horse learns that separation or isolation is indeed stressful, changing this involuntary association is more difficult. All animals are hardwired to remember stressful experiences, and avoid them in the future. While it is possible to retrain these horses, it is more challenging and takes more time.

For the horse who has already learned that separation is stressful, a trigger may be simply the sight of a handler picking up a halter in readiness to catch another horse for a riding lesson.

Although the tips that follow provide an overview of addressing separation distress, as with much in horse training, the devil is in the nuanced details. Learning how to teach horses desirable behaviours or help them overcome negative emotions is best done under the supervision of a qualified professional.

Three things to consider when working with the naïve horse, or the horse who has already experienced stress when separated, are trigger management, appropriate behaviour modification techniques (systematic desensitization) and generalization.

Managing Exposure To Triggers

Triggers are things which cause horses to behave in ways viewed as undesirable. For naïve horses, a trigger may be being placed into a stall where they cannot see others. For the horse who has already learned that separation is stressful, a trigger may be simply the sight of a handler picking up a halter in readiness to catch another horse for a riding lesson. In both instances, these events cause the horse to become stressed.

Being able to manage exposure to triggers is critical to addressing this issue. Initially, outside of training sessions, triggers must be managed so as to not cause the horse to react. Failure to do so can worsen the problem and impede progress.

Systematic Desensitization

Whether working with the naïve horse or the horse who has experienced stress when separated, one of the techniques recommended by qualified horse behaviour professionals is systematic desensitization. This is gradual exposure to a triggering stimulus in a way that does not cause the horse to feel fear, anxiety, or undue stress. This evidence-based behaviour modification technique is counter to what is often seen in social media posts showing ‘desensitization’: a horse exposed to a trigger at a level that results in the horse feeling fear, anxiety or stress.

A Fear Hierarchy chart.The ability to recognize signs of fear, anxiety, and undue stress in horses is critical. Undue stress and fearful emotions are counter-productive to learning. While stressed horses simply cannot learn the lessons we want them to learn, overexposure to triggers can, paradoxically, result in behaviours viewed as desirable by the trainer.

This can be seen when people tie young horses away from others to ‘patience poles’. At first, the horse will strongly try to escape the restricted isolation; but eventually, escape attempts subside. However, this change in behavioural response isn’t usually associated with positive feelings. More frequently, it signifies that the horse has exhausted their physical and mental reserves needed to escape the situation. Repeated, similar experiences at the patience pole can result in ‘learned helplessness’, a psychological condition where the horse learns that no action they take will stop very unpleasant things happening to them, resulting in despondency. Once experienced in one aspect of an animal’s life, learned helplessness can occur more easily during other stressful events in the future.

In my work as a clinical animal behaviourist, trigger management coupled with systematic desensitization are my go-to techniques for helping horses experiencing separation-related distress. Effective and low-stress, this combination can be used whether horses have trouble specifically with being left by others, or by leaving others. Creating what’s known as a ‘fear hierarchy’ before training begins can help guide the trainer in identifying appropriate levels of trigger exposure. Changing emotions and stress responses takes more time than training new behaviours to a naïve horse and the individual’s responses will dictate the speed of retraining.


Generalization is the ability of an animal to transfer what they’ve learned in one context to other contexts. This is achieved by setting up training so that the horse can succeed under easy conditions before gradually layering in variables which may make it more challenging. For example, accepting separation from others at a distance of 40 feet in a quiet arena is easier than being asked to ride out solo for one hour. Generalization should be factored in while addressing separation distress in horses.