Training

Separation Strategies for the Herd-Bound Horse

When you remove your horse from his herd or take away his buddy, he may start having separation anxiety and become agitated and whinny, find out more.

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By: Antonia J.Z. Henderson |

Dealing with a “buddy sour” or “herd-bound” horse can be a frustrating experience, but this “herdiness” is an entirely natural behaviour. Horses have social needs similar to humans, and most of our equine management practices thwart this innate desire for connection. When you remove your horse from his herd or take away his buddy, he may start having separation anxiety and become agitated and whinny, for example, because everything in his evolutionary development has hard-wired him to feel unsafe without his herdmates.

If the situation is threatening, or even moderately stressful, such as a trailer ride, new environment, or the demands of a horse show, then it pays for him to be extra vigilant about keeping his pals in sight.

Since horses’ precarious survival on the range hinged on sticking together, this behaviour was evolutionarily selected for. Horses that wandered off were much more likely to get eaten by a predator and thus not have the opportunity to pass on that behavioural trait to future generations. Horses that stuck together survived and so too did the trait of maintaining close bonds. Remembering this will go a long way toward helping you work patiently with your horse to build his separation tolerance. Following are some tips for dealing with the natural, albeit annoying and, at times, even dangerous, equine trait of separation anxiety.

Allow them to have equine friends

In many stables, horses are not permitted to form attachments. Some trainers and managers feel that these attachments will interfere with the horses’ work and decrease their focus. However, keeping groups stable and allowing horses to form attachments to specific others builds security. Constantly destroying these relationships fosters increasing separation anxiety.

Don’t separate friends cold turkey, or don’t separate them at all

Typically, when horses become “too attached” they are banished to opposite ends of the stable, everyone endures their hysterics until they eventually give up, and the problem is considered cured. Unfortunately, the more likely outcome is that the horse, convinced that he is apt to lose his friends at any minute, immediately becomes “too attached” to the next horse he is stabled beside and the scenario repeats itself with renewed vigour. The horse’s separation anxiety has, in fact, been increased, and his herdiness is exacerbated rather than resolved. Instead, allow your horse to form friendships and shape his separation tolerance.

Build separation tolerance with positive reinforcement

An investment of time up front to build separation tolerance will result in a horse that happily works independently, confident in the knowledge that he will see his friends again. Here’s how:

  • If your horse becomes fretful when a halter is put on his herdmate, start there. Reward your horse with a treat for staying calm while a second person approaches his buddy in the paddock or stall.
  • Reward again when the second person puts a halter on his herdmate.
  • Slowly build so that your horse’s buddy walks out of the paddock or stall and immediately returns.
  • Next, let the friend walk a few steps away from the paddock or down the barn aisle and immediately return.
  • Reward whenever you see the calm behaviour that you are after.
  • If your horse becomes anxious, back up in the progression to where he was calm, reward, and build again.
  • Try this both ways – with his herdmate leaving him and with your horse being the one to leave.

Your horse learns to cope with the temporary separation by being rewarded with a treat for his calm behaviour, but, more importantly, he is strongly reinforced by the reunion with his friend. Each experience reinforces the fact that he will always see his friend again, and thus builds his confidence to handle increasingly longer separations. Although this may seem tedious (and in the initial steps you want to make small increments so that separation anxiety need never occur), it won’t be long before your horse is able to be separated from his friend for hours or days, assured in the knowledge that he will not disappear forever.

Don’t confuse “learned helplessness” with successful training

Horses that have continuously had relationships shattered, or have never been allowed to form them in the first place, may appear compliant. However, there is good research to support the notion that horses experience “learned helplessness” as do humans when faced with chronic, uncontrollable and inescapable stress. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who first coined this term, trained research dogs to avoid an electrically charged floor by jumping a barrier to a safe zone. When Seligman then charged both floors so that no amount of jumping could impact their horrific experience, the dogs gave up trying and lay down whimpering on the charged floor, even when an escape route was reintroduced. Horses that suffer silently in isolation may too have given up trying, since their actions have had no impact on consequences. This may have all the outward appearances that the horse “has learned his lesson,” but this depressed state of learned helplessness takes its toll with physiological and psychological consequences such as the development of ulcers and abnormal behaviours.

Think hard about breaking apart attachment relationships

Horses are hard-wired to form strong bonds to specific others just as we do to parents, siblings, friends and romantic partners. Although it is unlikely that they experience the enduring and debilitating grief that humans do upon the loss of a loved one, losing their friends is not inconsequential. In your horse’s world, where horses are bought, sold, sent away and shuffled about, friendships are rarely enduring. Indeed, much of this instability is beyond our control. Still, this shift in the makeup of the herd matters to horses, especially when facing the separation from a specific friend. When separation can be avoided, do so and when these rifts are unavoidable, cut your equine pal some slack and give him some time to adjust to the loss.