Horses are a social species. When allowed to live as they would in the wild, they group themselves with other horses—they form herds. Like other prey animals, being part of a herd makes them feel safe. It improves their chances of survival. A horse’s natural desire to be with other horses is very strong, and studies have shown that horses who have limited social contact with other horses, especially limited visual contact, have more behavior problems than horses who get to socialize regularly.
Horses form strong emotional attachments to their herd members. If removed from the herd, even to be placed with another herd, many can become anxious and distressed. People who keep horses traditionally call a horse who has this kind of reaction “herd bound.” Some horses, instead of becoming attached to a herd in general, form very strong bonds with one specific horse. This feeling of attachment may or may not be shared by the other horse. Unfortunately, a horse who has a strong attachment to another horse will often have extreme reactions when separated from that individual. Horse people sometimes call a horse who becomes upset when separated from a specific companion “buddy sour.”
How Horses React to Separation
Horses’ reactions to separation can range from mild to extreme, and a horse reacting to being taken from her friends can seriously injure a rider or handler trying to control her. Depending on the circumstances, a horse experiencing separation distress might refuse to move forward, might rush or lunge forward or turn around abruptly, or might rear or buck. Because of their size and strength, horses can also hurt themselves when trying to escape enclosures that separate them from their herd. A horse who’s confined in a fenced area away from her herd might scream, paw the ground or continuously pace or dash back and forth along the fence. She might even push on and break through the fence. A horse suffering from separation distress on the trail can be particularly dangerous to herself and her rider. She may take the bit, wheel about and run back toward home or dash off to catch up with a horse who’s ahead of her. In addition, because separation distress creates anxiety, she’s more likely to spook and then race back to the barn or her buddies.
How a horse is separated from other horses she’s bonded with can affect the way she responds. Some horses are only distressed when left alone while another horse is led or ridden away from them, but they’re not distressed if they’re the one being led or ridden away. The location of the separation can also determine the way a horse reacts. One horse might only become distressed when left alone in the barn but not outside in the pasture, while another might be less upset when she’s left in her stall than when she’s left alone outdoors.
Possible Medical Influences
Physical pain or discomfort can contribute to an increase in separation distress, as with all behavior problems. Illness may increase a horse’s perception of vulnerability and, therefore, increase the likelihood that she’ll react poorly when separated from her herd. Fluctuations in hormonal activity can also impact a mare’s reaction to being apart from her herd.
If a horse who hasn’t shown any signs of separation distress in the past suddenly begins to act upset when removed from her herd, she should be examined by a veterinarian to rule out physiological problems that might affect her behavior.
Resolving the Problem
Getting Started: Teach Your Horse to Feel Secure Around You
Horses object to being separated from their herd not just because they love the other horses. They feel insecure when they’re apart from those horses. With this in mind, the first step toward helping your horse overcome her separation distress is to teach her to feel secure around you. When your horse and her herd are in the barn together and she isn’t facing separation issues, groom her calmly. While she can see the other horses in her herd and, therefore, isn’t likely to become anxious, work on her ground manners. Teach your horse to lead well, keeping her eye-to-ear area in line with your body rather than in front or behind you. Teach her not to crowd you. Teach her to back up on cue. If your horse trusts you, feels calm around you and is willing to move when and where you ask her to, she’ll be much more willing to leave her herd mates and come with you.
If Your Horse Is Attached to a Specific Companion
If your horse is attached to one particular horse, the barn is a good place to start teaching her that separation from her pasture companion is survivable. With the horses stalled, feed them their meals. While your horse is eating, lead her buddy out of his stall and away from your horse. Walk up and down in the barn isle until your horse is done eating, and then lead her friend back into his stall. If your horse objects while you’re walking the other horse, simply stop where you are and wait for her to calm down. Once she quiets, turn back with the other horse to reduce the distance between the two horses, and then start again.
Alternating pasture mates may also help horses overcome strong attachments to particular horses. This strategy can also prevent problem attachments from forming.
Bringing Your Horse in From the Pasture
The best way to teach your horse to leave her buddies and come in from the pasture is to convince her that being away from the herd can be fun. You can do this using grain or treats your horse likes. Your overall goal will be to have your horse associate separation from her herd with good things. This association will help her feel more comfortable when she’s away from the herd.
It’s important that you don’t expect your horse to be able to walk all the way to the barn—or even out of the pasture—just because you have treats with you. Her herd may be more important to her than food. Because of this, if you know that your horse starts to object when she gets to the pasture gate, begin your treatment there. If you know that she doesn’t even like to be led away from the herd, begin your treatment by simply attaching the lead, turning her head toward the gate and giving her treats. Don’t wait to give her the treats until she won’t lead or is calling to her buddies.
Basic treatment steps
It’s important to progress through the following steps slowly so your horse doesn’t experience any unnecessary stress. If you lead your horse too far away from her herd too soon and she begins to get upset, stop where you are. Let her look at the other horses by turning her head, but do your best to keep her from moving toward them. When she calms because you’ve stopped moving farther away, offer her a treat and then allow her to lead back to the herd. Go back a step and practice at that level until your horse seems completely comfortable.
- Put a lead on your horse while she’s in the pasture and walk her toward the gate. As soon as she’s out of sight of her buddies—even if it’s simply that her back is to them—give her treats, such as carrots, apples or grain. Wait a couple of minutes while she eats. Then, while she’s still calm, return her to the herd. Some horses may not be willing to lose sight of their herd, even for a moment. If this is the case with your horse, begin by leading her around where the other horses are grazing. Turn her in a small circle so you can feed her treats while she’s not looking at the other horses. Next time, make the circle bigger.
- Gradually increase the distance you take your horse away from her herd. Your goal may be to get her to the barn, but you will need to start small. The gate will likely be a trouble point, so lead her up to the gate and treat her there. Then walk back to the herd, let her graze a minute or two, and, when you are sure she’s calm, start again. When you get to the gate this time, open it. If your horse starts bobbing her head or trying to see the other horses, make her wait at the gate and move through it yourself. Then, instead of bringing her through the gate, turn and face her on an angle (never stand directly in front of an agitated horse), and feed her treats while she’s turned away from the herd but still in the pasture. After your horse eats the treats, lead her back to the herd and let her graze again. Next time, take her through the gate.
- Practice your separation exercises twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening. With this schedule, your training sessions will be close to feeding times. When you can get your horse to go into the barn, you can feed her a meal and she’ll get an extra reward when removed from the herd.
Tip for success
To avoid setting your horse back, try to avoid removing her from her herd except during planned practice sessions. Also avoid removing your horse from the herd and then immediately subjecting her to something unpleasant, such as injections, shoeing or teeth floating. If your horse must be separated for a procedure during the training period, have other horses from her herd stalled or confined within sight.
Provide a Friend
Individual runs separated by metal or otherwise secure fencing that lead into separate stalls is a very good set-up for stabling horses prone to separation distress. This type of an arrangement allows horses to interact with other horses during the day but be separated at night, and this can help a horse overcome separation distress when stalled. Of course, not everyone can have runs installed for their horses. If your horse objects to being stalled away from other horses, a second option is to provide a friend for her. Because horses are very social, some of them are calmed by the company of other animals. This is particularly likely when a horse reacts to being left alone in general rather than to separation from one specific horse. Goats and ponies are often chosen as companions for horses because their size minimizes the possibility that they’ll be stepped on or otherwise injured. But keep in mind that goats will be far more difficult to contain than horses and that they occasionally entertain themselves by chewing on their horse friends’ tails. It’s also important to realize that your horse may form as strong an attachment to her companion animal as to another horse.
If you choose to provide animal companionship for your horse, be aware that 1) the companion shouldn’t be left in the stall with your horse until the two animals have been supervised through two or three feedings so you’re reasonably sure that your horse won’t injure her companion, and 2) you must take time to introduce the new companion to your horse, particularly if the new companion is a different species. To introduce your horse to a new friend, pasture them adjacent to each another or walk them next to each another for a few days until neither shows fear or distrust around the other.
Unfortunately, companions aren’t always feasible for horses, and some horses react aggressively to other species. For these horses, another solution is to provide mirrors in their stalls. Choose a mirror that is large enough for your horse to see her own reflection (approximately 4½ by 3 feet). Make sure the mirror is acrylic and made specifically for horses. You can purchase special mirrors from online vendors, such as The Stable Mirror Company. Mount the mirror so your horse can see into it at a natural, relaxed head height—about 1½ feet above the ground. Avoid hanging the mirror near the feed manger to prevent your horse from competing with her own reflection for food.
Products Available to Treat Separation Distress
Some anecdotal reports suggest that certain herbal products, pheromones and medications can reduce anxiety in horses, but these remedies have not been proven scientifically. Always consult your veterinarian before giving your horse any products or medications.
Herbal remedies are commercially available and usually include ingredients such as St. John’s wort, valerian root, chamomile flowers and Bach flowers. They are sold in swab, spray, liquid, powder and capsule form.
Pheromones are chemicals made inside an animal that trigger natural responses in other members of the same species. Most people are aware that animals can give off chemical scent signals to indicate when they’re ready to breed, but animals also use pheromones to send alarm signals, greeting signals and “I was here” signals. Scientists have found that some horse pheromones are calming to other horses. Equine Appeasing Pheromone is a commercially available synthetic pheromone based on a natural pheromone secreted from specialized glands. This pheromone is dispensed as a mist that you can spray directly into your horse’s nostrils to help calm her when she’s in new, exciting or stressful situations. If you choose to try this kind of pheromone, first make sure that your horse won’t react fearfully to you spraying her face and nostrils.
A veterinarian may prescribe a medication for an anxious horse, but there are no medications specifically labeled for horses experiencing separation distress.