Separation Anxiety In Horses

Learn what predisposes certain horses to separation anxiety and what we can do to prevent it.

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Separation Anxiety in Horses
Most geldings with separation anxiety will settle down within a couple days after their mares are taken away. | Photo:
Q: We have two riding mares and an older gelding that are together, either in the pasture or up in the shed, almost all of the time. We use the two mares just for occasional weekend pleasure riding. The gelding is aged and has a stifle problem. He is just hanging out here eating grass.

Here’s the problem. Whenever we take our mares out of the pasture to ride or for any other reason, the gelding simply goes nuts. He just runs up and down the fence, back and forth in front of the gate, or tears around the shed, calling and screaming until the others are back. We can hardly get them through the gate he’s so upset. Even after we get back, it takes him about an hour to settle down. He runs the mares all over and won’t let them out of his sight. We have tried putting him up in a stall while we’re out, and he just goes crazy. He won’t eat hay or grain or relax the whole time we’re away. We have tried disciplining him, but that does nothing to quiet him down. We have tried leaving one mare with him, and that doesn’t seem to help. He’s agitated until the other one is back. All the carrying on makes him really lame for a week or so. Sometimes he gets himself so worked up that we’re afraid he’ll colic or run through the fence.

I was wondering if this might be a mental condition like the one you hear about in dogs. My sister had a dog that went nuts like this, barking and running around and tearing up the apartment whenever she left it at home alone. Their veterinarian called it “separation anxiety,” and recommended behavior modification procedures. They tried it, but it didn’t work so well because of their hectic schedules. They ended up giving the dog to a home where someone was there all the time.

My sister recently gave me an article saying that now there is a medication available to treat dogs with separation anxiety. What exactly is separation anxiety in dogs? Do you think our gelding has the same thing as dogs? Are there any behavior modification programs or medications that you think would help? Also, we were wondering if you thought we should try taking the mares away from the gelding for more than just a few hours to see if he’ll get over it. How long would you think it might take to know if he’ll ever settle down? What we have been doing is getting the mares back as soon as possible so he doesn’t hurt himself, two to three hours at most

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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