Resolving Separation Anxiety

My 8 year old gelding lives outside with 2 other mares, one he ignores and the other one he loves. The mare that he loves, went on trial for a week, and when she left he paced the fence for days, making a deep trench. She ended up coming back but will be leaving next month for good. Is there anything I can do to help the transition go smoother? I was thinking about possibly a mild trank or “chill”. He is an easy keeper but did stress off some weight, and I worry about him getting over heated if it’s hot out. Putting him in a stall is not an option (no stalls available and he also hates being inside and paces) He lives in a large paddock with a bit a grass, free choice hay and a small amount of pelleted feed 2x a day. He is fine to ride alone and cross tie in the barn alone. The other problem I have is that he will not stand in the wash stall alone. (He will stand all day when I am washing his tail or cleaning his sheath lol) He gets very stressed if I even take a few steps away, and actually slipped and fell down and broke his halter the other day because he was pacing so badly. As well as pacing, he bites when he is anxious, not ear pinned angry, but it is like he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He snaps/bites from side to side as he is pacing. I bred him, and this has always been a little bit of an issue, when he had a stall, he was stressed if he wasn’t the first one out in the morning. I used to tie him in his stall in the morning if he wasn’t going out first because he drove me crazy. I do mostly hunter/jumper with a lot a flat work on  suppling and bending, and hack in a western saddle, so he gets lots of variety and gets worked about 5x a week. I really like John Lyons methods and do a lot a ground work. He knows the  “head down” cue, and try to use it in stress full situations, but as soon as I am not touching him and take a step away, he starts again. It is like both myself and the mare are his security  blanket. But I can leave him alone in the grooming stall (right across the hall from the wash stall) and he is fine to stand there forever.

Do you have any suggestions for me? Switching turnout is not an option, there are only the 3 horses  that live outside and they all need to be in the same paddock.

Teresa

Hi, Teresa … You are dealing with separation anxiety that is not that uncommon with horses who live outside full time in small herds.  Besides the usual bonding that occurs between herd mates, there is also the dynamic of the single gelding with a group of mares.  In these situations, the gelding often takes on the stallion’s role of protector of his harem.   The gelding takes on some stallion behaviours and is one of the reasons I prefer to keep mares and geldings in separate turn out groups.

Some horses seem to make stronger attachments to other horses and have a difficult time dealing with separation from one or more herd mates.  Whether this is caused by nature (genetic predisposition) or nurture (management) is up for debate.  Once the stress begins, adrenaline is coursing through the horse’s blood stream and it becomes harder for him to settle himself.  Much like a young child having a temper tantrum or a person having a panic attack.  The physical activities exacerbate the emotional distress.

Prevention is always the best course of action.  Since the reality of life for most horses is that they will be moved from place to place and live with different horses – or even on their own – through out their life times, it is best to prepare them when they are young.  Systematically get them used to the comings and goings of pasture mates for short periods and long periods.  Even changing turn out groups occasionally if possible.

For horses that are extremely stressed by separation from one or more herd mates, behaviour modification through training usually helps.   If there is another paddock close to the gelding where he could still see and have some level of connection with the mare, you could move the mare there for short periods of time.  However, if this is not an option or the gelding continues to be stressed without settling himself, there is an alternative.  It will take time and persistence as this is a strong drive behind this behaviour.

Start by simply taking the mare out of the paddock for a short time, but keeping her close enough that the gelding does not get stressed.  If he gets stressed as soon as you take her out of the gate, simply stay near the fence line – even letting them touch noses over the fence.  Once the gelding settles, walk the mare a bit further away.  When he gets stressed, bring her back.  As he settles, continue extending the distance between them.

You can help the gelding deal with the situation even more if you have someone who can help you.  As one person takes the mare out of the paddock (gradually increasing distance as described above), the other can handle the gelding.  Have him on a long lead rope or a lunge line.  Since he already knows the head down cue, gently ask him to bring his head down before the mare is taken out of the paddock.  When he gets stressed, he may not be able to stay in this posture and will want to move.  Allow him to move, but control where he is going by keeping contact on the lead rope and asking him to turn a very small circle around you.  In this way, you are addressing his very real need to move and allowing him to process the physical and mental stress he is feeling.  Be sure that he does not bend into you while you do this.  This exercise is also asking him to keep his focus on you rather than on the mare.

When the horse lowers his head, the flow of adrenaline is turned off and he starts to feel more calm.  The point of this exercise is to show him that he can feel calm even when the mare is not with him.  You can apply the same techniques to dealing with the gelding’s stress in the barn.

  • Always start with short time periods where he is alone (or just can’t see you as you stand nearby)
  • gradually increase the time he is alone when he is not stressing
  • encourage him to stand square and with a low head in the grooming stall (see my article “8 Tips for Training Your Horse to Stand Quietly When Tied

Remember that behaviour modification takes time, persistence, patience and consistency.


Do you have a question about your horse’s behaviour, training, riding or your own confidence issues?  Submit your questions at Ask Anne

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