This is one of the most common issues I’m asked about. The first thing I will say is separation anxiety is a natural behaviour and it is not “bad” behaviour. Any horse showing separation anxiety is highly stressed. Horses by nature are herd animals, they have evolved for thousands of years to know there is safety in numbers, in the wild a lone horse is a dead horse. We need to look at why our horses don’t feel safe enough with us to leave their friends and how we can help with that.
If your horse is in a situation where he is chronically stressed and doesn’t feel safe, it is going to be very difficult to address separation anxiety. Your horse needs to have turnout space with a companion where he feels truly relaxed, if your horse is stressed even in his turnout he is just going to have high anxiety all the time and you cannot out-train this in any ethical way. Shutting a stressed horse in a stable or leaving them to fence walk for hours is not going to improve how they feel, it is actually going to make things worse. Other things that can contribute to stress are pain/discomfort, a stressful environment, moving to new places, changing herd etc.
If you are going to keep only 2 horses alone you need to be aware of the issues you might face and not expect horses not to act like horses. It is a big ask of any horse to be left completely alone while the other horse goes out of sight.
Once your horse is feeling comfortable with their herd mates we can start to address how they feel around humans. It completely depends on your set up as to what this would look like. I like to start training where the horse feels comfortable so I can start working on some emotional regulation and boundaries while the horse isn’t highly stressed. Once we have a rapport I will start to move to a slightly more uncomfortable place and do the same thing.
If you just pull your horse in and start trying to train without giving him any tools to cope you are just going to compound the issue. Humans will become a predictor for stress and he is going to feel even more anxious to be back with his friends. We want to avoid the triggering the high-stress behaviour as much as we can so that we can start to put good experiences “into the bank” so to speak, this is how you get a horse comfortable to leave the herd and see you as somebody safe to be around.
There was a recent study (which I will find the link to and add in the comments) that showed horses will follow other horses who make good choices regardless of their place in the herd. On the same token, if they follow a horse and decide that horse made a bad choice for them they will be less inclined to follow them in the future. This is really interesting if we relate it to our interactions with horses. If every time your horse comes in he gets some food, has a calm training session where he isn’t pushed over threshold and then goes back to his friends, he is going to start to predict you will make good choices for him and feel better around you. However if every time he comes in he has a stressful experience and is left shut away from his friends he is going to associate you with that stress regardless of you intentions or how much of a role you had to play in it.
I just want to add a few words from one of my clients Marianne who was having some separation anxiety issues recently with her lovely horse Louie.
“Louie has had his challenges in the NE and he has changed from a happy, gentle, go lucky confident 5 YO, to an anxious, stressed, “I don’t know where to find my calm happy place” horse, very quickly. I understand his challenges: on a lorry for (unplanned no stops, 11 hours solo trip up here); 6 different yards in 5 years, where he made horsey friends every time and then was moved because of yard issues. He is a herd (natural) horse, with all the insecurities of not having a herd around him brings to the surface. We are now on a lovely farm with a small stable herd but it’s the nature of livery yards that people and horses change. Recently, our herd had changed, with three horses moving out, two moving in; so he is in a field with 1 other horse that he knows well and 2 others across the fences (electric), that he cannot now touch and play with. He has become over bonded with his 1 field friend. If you, as a human, had your universe changed so frequently and to this extent, wouldn’t you feel disorientated and lost???? I know I would, even though I am one of those strange folks that love change; everyone needs some level of deep-down consistency.
So here we are again, an unsettled, anxious, on his toes horse, who can’t keep his brain in place due to anxiety. I have had a lifetime with horses and been on every teach-in I can for 30 years, from equid psychology, biomechanics with Charles, through to equine ethnography, straightness training and liberty – give the horse a chance to express themselves. I was getting no where and knew I needed help. So, we tried, Reiki, Dick Vet behaviour psychologist, ET, zoopharmacognosy, you name it, I’ve tried it, trying to restore peace to my now rather big cob X thoroughbred.
Then, along came Louise Stobbs (LS Horsemanship). Louise taught Louie (and me!) to find our calm happy place – because I am now very rattled as I cannot find the right solutions and Louie is so unhappy and a bit (very) unhinged. Through doing what appears to be “nothing”, she has taught both of us, what time and waiting and waiting and waiting, does to find our “HAPPY PLACE”. There is no point in pushing through with a horse (despite my younger years of being told he’s “taking the mickey” and being screamed at by international trainers over the years because I refuse to hit a horse or use spurs). Do you want to be on a horse that explodes?? I know I have many times and now I am too old to fall off badly – again and again. First and foremost, I love horses; who they really are and what they can really be, much more than riding. Age? Yes possibly, but I wish I knew then, what I know now and I might not have broken so many important bits.
We have been working with Louise for a year, maybe 4 sessions? In one double session last week, she brought the anxiety/flight response into being fine alone in the arena (no horses visible), in the stable alone (he is now claustrophobic), walking down the lane alone. Chilled as anything. Then we start doing posture, movement, flow and stops.
I have kept up the being alone/happy places exercises every day and it is working (on most days – nothing is infallible read the situation - there are fence menders, hedge cutters, lorries working). Lou is calm, happy and playful in the arena when he can’t see another horse.” 🐴