Separation anxiety is a relatively common condition among horses, and when it occurs, it can be problematic for owners and riders. At the very least, it’s a minor inconvenience. Occasionally, it causes a major threat to the health and well-being of horses and their handlers.
Separation anxiety is the apprehension that arises when bonded horses are unable to touch or see each other. While most horses enjoy the company of other equines, separation anxiety in horses is more about instinct and survival than a simple desire to mingle.
“Horses are herd animals that depend on social groups for companionship and for safety in certain situations,” explains Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PhD, president of the Equine Research Foundation in Aptos, Calif. “Safety from predators may not be an issue for most domestic horses, but that need is still deeply ingrained in this prey species.”
A Source of Suffering?
In virtually every horse’s life, some type of separation is necessary and unavoidable. Fortunately, it’s not always a source of significant suffering. “Whether horses are traumatized by separation depends if they have a chance to join a new group,” says Konstanze Krüger, PhD, of the Department of Evolution, Behavior, and Genetics at the University of Regensburg in Germany. She believes horses kept in isolation suffer because they are highly social animals.
Changing groups is a common scenario for young horses in nature. Wild horses tend to remain in relatively stable groups throughout their lives except for younger herdmates. Studies of American Mustangs, for example, revealed that up to 80% of these horses disperse from their natal groups between the ages of 3 to 5 years. According to Krüger, “Many equine researchers now observe that social groups in horses are very fluid. Like many intelligent social mammals, horses live in a fission-fusion social system, meaning that they frequently disperse and reunite.”
If horses are separated from their herd and kept in isolation for even short periods of time, they might display a number of behaviors consistent with separation anxiety. “Behaviors typical of separation anxiety include running the fenceline, increased vocalizations, and reduced time spent grazing,” says Jill Nugent, equine specialist and biology instructor at the University of North Texas in Denton. “Serious separation anxiety can lead to self-injury in the horse. In the long term, it can lead to chronic exposure to the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, this can be detrimental to the horse’s immune, cardiovascular, reproductive, and digestive systems.”
Social Order, Personality, and Separation
Virtually any horse is capable of experiencing separation anxiety, but some horses might be more prone to the condition than others. Although it might seem logical that the most dominant horses in the herd would be the least likely to experience separation anxiety, they actually tend to be more vulnerable than their subordinates.
“From the biological point of view, dominant horses often exhibit more distress when separated, because they have much more to lose,” explains Krüger. “The dominant horses have well-accepted positions in their respective groups, which they typically don’t want to relinquish. While subordinate horses can easily join another herd in a low-ranking position, it is very unlikely that dominant horses will be able to take over a high-ranking position in another group.”
A horse’s social rank in the herd is only a minor determinant of its likelihood to experience separation anxiety. Its individual personality, on the other hand, is of primary importance. “It’s a common misconception that dominant horses are always self-confident, and that subordinate horses always suffer from anxiety, but this is not always the case,” Krüger notes. “Sometimes the most subordinate horses are the most self-confident; they just seek to avoid confrontation.”
Whether horses are dominant or subordinate, she adds, those with anxious personalities will experience greater levels of distress with separation, and they’ll fight harder to stay in the herd than horses that are more self-reliant in nature.
Easing the Pain of Separation Anxiety
While there’s no doubt that the behaviors associated with separation anxiety can be harmful to horses, they can also be hazardous to humans. “The horse that is herd-bound can be a dangerous animal, although it’s usually unintentional,” says Lynn Palm, founder of Palm Partnership Training and Women LUV Horses Equestrian Retreats. “You don’t want you or your horse to get hurt, so your best bet is to start working to eliminate undesirable behaviors from the ground. Palm recommends leading and longeing the anxious horse away from his herdmates before moving on to more advanced lessons, such as ponying the horse on short trail rides.
“Riding a calm mount while you lead the anxious horse puts both you and the horse in a safer situation than riding the anxious horse,” she says.
When it comes to training horses to tolerate separation, sooner is always better than later. “Horses can be conditioned to be separated from the herd,” says Nugent. “It is really beneficial if this type of training occurs when horses are young so that they grow up used to it.”
While training is an excellent way to help horses overcome separation anxiety, prevention is equally important. According to Emma Creighton, PhD, senior lecturer in animal behavior and welfare at the University of Chester in England, “Owners can treat separation anxiety to minimize its impact, but they are better advised to prevent their horses from developing intense social bonds in the first place.”
Some horse owners pair anxious equines with animal companions, including goats, donkeys, and dogs. While many horses take comfort in the presence of other animals–and even their human owners–there’s really no substitute for the companionship of other horses. “Ideally, says Hanggi, “all horses should live with other horses in as natural an environment as possible.”
Kinder, Gentler Weaning
One of the most familiar types of separation anxiety occurs when mares and foals are separated at weaning. Among domestic horses, the weaning process has the potential to be enormously stressful for both mares and foals, and for this reason it should be approached with great care. In the wild, on the other hand, weaning is a kinder, gentler, and more gradual process. Youngsters typically stay with their dams for two to three years. They drift away only after they’ve had a chance to become more mature and independent.
“In captivity, weaning that mirrors this pattern produces socially more balanced individuals that are reputedly easier to train and suffer fewer behavioral problems,” notes Creighton.
Over the past three decades, Maureen Horton of Thirteen Oaks Arabians in Blountville, Tenn., has weaned hundreds of foals. “Our process is based on the weaning practices I observed while visiting breeding farms in Poland,” she says. “It’s continued to evolve and improve with each passing year.”
At Horton’s farm broodmares and their foals are pastured together. In the first few months of life, the foals are led into the broodmare barn alongside their dams for daily feeding and grooming. “They may spend less than an hour a day inside,” she explains, “but this simple routine gets them used to being handled, and it also gets them accustomed to coming into and out of the barn.”
When the foals are halter broke, eating a sufficient amount of grain, and gaining weight at an acceptable rate, they’re ready to be weaned–one at a time. The dam of the oldest foal is taken to a remote pasture to join another group of familiar horses, and her foal is left in the company of the herd.
“It’s very stressful for foals to be isolated in a stall during weaning, and this stress can make them much more susceptible to pneumonia,” Horton says. “During weaning, we find that the foals are safer, healthier, and more comfortable in the pasture with the other foals and the broodmares they’ve known since birth.”
For several days following separation from its mother, the newly weaned foal and the remainder of the herd are left outside. “The foal still misses his mother,” Horton notes, “but he takes comfort in being around the other mares and foals.”
When the newly weaned foal has adjusted to separation from his mother, he’s ready to slip back to his old routine. Once again, he’s led to the stall that he once shared with his dam for daily feeding and grooming. “This way, he’s separated from the herd and stalled by himself for a few minutes each day,” Horton says. “It helps him adjust to being alone for short periods, and prevents him from becoming too attached to the other weanlings.”
When it’s time for the other foals in the herd to be weaned, the process is repeated, until the last broodmare is led away. “I’ve studied many different weaning methods,” says Horton, “and this one seems to be the one that is most effective, with the least amount of trauma to both mare and foal.”
Separation Anxiety in Show Horses
Show horses and other performance horses are particularly vulnerable to separation anxiety, especially in the early stages of their career. “Horse owners need to remember that horses are herd animals, and their natural instinct is to stick together and to be a part of a herd,” says Palm. “When you wean a mature horse from the herd or from a buddy, it’s almost like weaning a mare and a foal. You have to work with the horse to change his habits. The more the horse is exposed to new things, the more easily he adjusts to different situations, including separation.”
Regardless of age, gender, or job, horses need to interact with other equines. “All horses should be allowed to have close contact with other horses on a regular basis,” said Hanggi, keeping in mind these strategies to help horses be healthy in their attachments. “It is up to us, as owners and trainers, to help our horses overcome separation issues.”