Horses galloping freely, interacting with their herd, and flying like the wind. These are all things we want for our trusty steeds.
But life happens, whether you need to sell your horses separately or move them to a new space, this can be scary for any horse.
Separation anxiety in horses is a real condition and may cause them trauma if you fail to notice that they’re struggling. That’s why we’re looking at what separation anxiety is, along with the symptoms, causes, and treatments.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when a horse gets separated from other horses. Horses are herd animals and thrive in a community. Separating a horse from its herd can cause serious distress.
Most horses will have some level of separation anxiety, at most there will be a little neighing to let you know they’re not happy. But this should pass when your riding companion realizes the world is not falling apart.
Unfortunately, true separation anxiety takes everything to the next level, putting you and your horse in harm’s way. That’s why understanding separation anxiety and all that comes along with it is so important.
Experienced riders and horse owners will know, caring for your horse goes beyond basic needs. Being informed and knowing when to step in and help your horse is one of the most vital parts of helping your horse succeed.
Causes of Horses Separation Anxiety
Before we look at the symptoms, it helps to know what causes separation anxiety, so you can keep an eye out from the start.
Like with most baby animals, if a young horse is removed from its mother too young there is a high chance for separation anxiety for the mare and the foal. In breeding, the foal generally weans and is removed at 4-7 months. Some feel this is too soon because in nature the foal and mother have an unbreakable bond lasting between 1.5-2 years.
Since horses are social animals, there is usually a hierarchyin the herd. Ponies form strong bonds with the herd from day one. If one part of that structure is removed, it can cause anxiety for the herd as a whole and the separated horse.
A horse can form part of another herd, but this takes time. There may be a period when the newly introduced horse feels quite out of place. If you’ve ever been the new kid at school, you’ll know all about it.
Being in a new environment can also cause general anxiety in horses. That alongside the stress of leaving what they know can become an internal struggle.
Generally, horses will begin to fit in with other horses. But knowing when the anxiety is causing a real problem is essential (more on that later).
Teaching your horse how to travel safely and be away from its herd is an important part of being a horse owner. Particularly if you’re in eventing and your horse needs to be away from you and its herd. Without proper training, your horse can form separation anxiety, making it harder for both you and your horse.
A traumatic event can also cause anxiety in horses. For example, if there’s an accident and a horse is lost out in nature alone, that can create emotional trauma. This may cause the horse to be more attached to other horses in the future.
Symptoms of Horses Separation Anxiety
Now that we know the causes, identifying the symptoms may be easier. Here’s what to look out for:
- Shaking: An anxious horse can tremble and shake. If this is happening when riding, dismount and try comforting your horse. If you’re far from home, try to take it slow and steady until you’re in a quiet spot to check your horse out.
- Vocalisation: As much as horses feel like part of the family, communication might be challenging. Vocalisation like neighing and screaming is to let you know they aren’t happy and might even be a way for them to call their herd.
- Bucking and rearing: If your horse begins kicking out and bucking, it’s time to step away. Don’t approach your horse! If you’re on your horse when it bucks, pull back on the inside rein. This will lower your horse’s head, bringing its nose towards your foot. This disengages the hindquarters, causing your horse to circle. Practising this before you need it is essential.
- Increased heart rate and sweating: This is often a symptom of anxiety. Particularly if no environmental factors are making your horse hot.
- Loss of appetite: Horses with anxiety often turn their nose up to food and drink to tell their human they aren’t comfortable. Anxiety can also cause nausea, so eating big meals during a transition phase isn’t likely. But if your horse is drastically losing weight, you should call the vet.
- Pawing: This is when the horse digs in the ground. Pawing may happen while you’re riding or simply when the horse is tied up. It’s a way for them to let their frustrations out.
- Pacing: This is seen a lot in horses with anxiety. The pacing lets off steam but also shows your horse is looking for something like their herd. Fence walking is a way for horses to attempt to make contact with their companions. Ultimately, they’re hoping their herd will be on the other side of the fence.
- Bolting: An anxious horse may run off quicker than you can say “Oops”. Once you know how fast a horse can run, you understand just how difficult it can be to find your horse again. Keeping your horse stabled or tied at the start is best until things calm down.
Seeing your horse act out like this can be quite hard. If you’re used to a fun-loving horse that thrives, it’s hard to see them struggle.
The good news is that you’ve taken note that something isn’t right, which is often the hardest part. Once you know something is off, you can begin to fix it.
Horses are herd animals and like company. You should get your horse a friend.
Diagnosing Horses Separation Anxiety
As much as we wish we could talk to our riding buddies, it’s simply not possible. This makes diagnosing separation anxiety more challenging because you can’t just ask “What’s going on?”.
While you’ll never be 100% sure if separation anxiety is the problem, you can identify if something is wrong. If you’ve moved your horse recently and any of the above symptoms persist, it’s pretty obvious that the change and separation from what they know is causing the issue.
Now, if it’s been a while since the change and the above symptoms appear, it’s time to call the vet. While separation struggles are plausible, there might be something else going on medically.
Taking notes can be very helpful for your vet. Note the time of day, what your horse is doing, when they ate last, and any other environmental factors that might cause a behaviour change.
Treating Separation Anxiety in Horses
Once you understand the symptoms and causes of separation anxiety, you can work towards treating your horse.
Treatments can vary from one horse to the other, but here are some of the best solutions:
- Build a trusting relationship: The most essential part of being a good owner is establishing a mutually trusting relationship. Your horse needs to know that they can trust you to care for them, especially when they aren’t feeling so good. Your horse should feel like they can communicate with you when they feel troubled.
- Get moving: Understand that your horse needs to move more when they’re anxious. This means taking them out more for quiet rides, letting them roam around freely, or walking on your own track beside them. Good old trail riding is a favourite for fresh air and free movement!
- Gradually increasing separation: Anxiety is much more likely when parting from other horses is abrupt. It’s confusing and distressing. Take your time by gradually increasing separation. To start, lead them away from the herd and out of the pasture for short periods then bring them back. Gradually increase the sessions until your horse is comfortable.
Side note: If you’re heading out on the road, stay safe with the three Ps.
- Make the experience positive: If you keep things fun and positive for your horse while they are away from the other horses, it keeps them distracted. Like with kids, out of sight, out of mind, but only if you’ve got something fun for them to do. Simple exercises and tricks are always a good option.
- Remain understanding: As much as we put our trust in horses, they put their trust in us too. If your horse suffers from anxiety, you should never respond in anger, your horse may never trust you again. Understand that what your horse is going through is difficult and provide the love and care you would want if you weren’t feeling your best.
- Keep the space calm: In a highly anxious situation, screaming and loud noises put fuel on the fire. When changing a horse’s home or herd, make the space comfortable and quiet. Both humans and horses need space and time to adjust.
- Call in the big guns: If you’ve done all you can, it’s time to call in a behavioural specialist. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try your horse may simply be stubborn. Luckily equine behavioural specialists are trained to help your horse through the transition period while keeping them safe and stress-free.
While treating separation anxiety in horses can take time, there is hope. Trust us, your horse is not the first and is definitely not the last. So, take your time and have a game plan in place, so you know what to do if things aren’t going as expected.
Is separation anxiety in horses common?
Yes, horses are very sensitive creatures to begin with. Changing their environments or separating them from their herd will always cause some response because ponies form strong bonds. The important thing is to know when anxiety is becoming a prolonged behavioural issue.
How long does it take to alleviate separation anxiety in horses?
It depends on the severity of the issue. Patience and consistency are a must if your horse suffers from anxiety. It can take a few weeks to months to get your horse comfortable with their new situation. But don’t give up, consistency is key!
Can separation anxiety in horses be prevented?
Many horses are simply more prone to separation anxiety, whether it’s their natural temperament or because of a bad experience. Still, to prevent the chances of separation anxiety, consistent training and handling can greatly reduce the chances of anxiety when separated from their environments or herd.