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Separation Anxiety and Pair Bonding
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Separation Anxiety and Pair Bonding


...is something most horse owners will experience at some point. Pair bonding usually manifests through horses being together 24/7. The problem can be with the horse that is left behind and/or the horse that is going away. When you consider they are herd animals, this is a totally natural and understandable behaviour! Typically the horse left behind will charge around the field or stable screaming for his friend, in the case of my horse Jason he would become a sweaty exhausted mess, even if he was turned out in a paddock separated from other horses by only an electric fence, he still wouldn't settle on his own. You may find the horse you are riding naps out hacking and wants to return to the yard to be reunited with his/her friend, and won't concentrate on you at all whether you're riding or lunging, or even just grooming...

If you are able to, stable the pair-bonded horses further apart at night, so they have the company of other horses that they are not so attached to, this alone can solve the problem. Although, pair bonding is often experienced when you have just two horses living together, so separating them at night may not be an option if there are only two stables for instance.


...we all know this golden rule don't we... BUT my advice is to vary the routine! For example; turn out and bring in horses in a different order each day. Ride at different times if your schedule allows it, be flexible and your horse will be too.  In my experience a horse who is accustomed to a varied routine is more relaxed and happy with changes, whereas keeping a strict routine creates a horse that NEEDS and EXPECTS just that!! I am always being told my horses behave more like dogs, I believe this is largely due to my relaxed and varied routines. (Having said this, always make diet changes gradually.)


Separate the paddock with a strip of electric fencing, start by putting one horse on the other side of this fence when feeding, and then when they have finished eating reunite them again. This keeps the experience a positive one, keep it short and sweet. When you judge they are ready, increase the time apart before they are reunited, give them snack balls, and throw some carrots around! Also, you can alternate which horse you move, giving them both/all a chance to explore the new patch, and again keeping that flexible routine. Add another strip of electric fencing, parallel to the first strip; gradually move this fence so the horses are further away from each other. They will still be able to see each other as their confidence builds, this will make the stable exercise below a smoother transition, for both the horse coming in and the one left out. 


Separate the horses daily by bringing one in to a stable. Again, make it a positive experience, keep them distracted, play music and feed your horse, fill a snack ball with treats, hide carrots in their hay, use a yummy Horslyx and stable mirrors. You could even groom your horse if you know this relaxes him; do whatever works for your horse.

As you make progress you can bring him into a different stable, it can be very interesting seeing how a horse behaves when you do this, remember that varied routine I spoke of! This is useful for when your horse needs to be stabled in a strange place, at a competition, at the vets or when moving to a new home. He will also be interested by the new smells, which will keep him distracted! Remember, if he will be out of sight of his friend, leave a snack ball with his field companion, you want to avoid them calling for each other... 


It is of course desirable for our horses to see us as their herd leader, and to feel safe in our company, but when a horse is genuinely scared of a situation they react on instinct first. When confronted with their fear/phobia I have seen respectful horses run straight over the top of their handler, knocking them to the floor. An example is my own horse that was cow phobic, he has a wonderful nature, very respectful of my personal space, and usually looks to me for reassurance if he feels worried, but on this particular occasion he was stood between me and a horse-eating cow in a narrow space. He knocked me over and then did his very best to avoid trampling me, he actually spread his legs and fell to his knees to avoid standing on me, bless him.


Where human safety is an issue, start with the field separation exercise, and initially avoid a situation where your horse is likely to react badly and potentially harm you or himself. Then when you make progress, move on to the stable exercise starting with another horse brought in too, provide the distractions/toys.

If he is fully settled in his stable start to remove the other horse from the stable for short periods of time, initially just walk the other horse out of its stable and walk it back in again within sight of your horse, do this as many times as you need to until your horse stops reacting badly to the threat of being left alone. Then start to remove the other horse from sight, keep it short and sweet. I'd suggest you are not inside the stable whilst doing these exercises! How long the horse stays on its own in the stable to begin with depends upon the individual horse and the extent of the problem, it may only be seconds initially, but don't give up! You know your own horse, keep it as short as it needs to be, keep it positive. Eventually you can alternate who is turned back out first. Leave the stabled horse with his distractions, until you can increase the time that they are apart.

Also, you could prevent your horse from harming himself if he is likely to attempt to jump out by fitting a door grill, I'd go for one with the anti-weave opening, because ideally I would want him to be able to look out and not feel too confined. 


SLOW progress is better than NO progress!

Even if in the beginning you simply walk your horse into the stable, feed a handful of his favourite treats, and then spin back around and reunite him with his friend again! Maybe you will only make it to the other side of the field gate the first few times... 


The key is to REPEAT this daily, if you can't do it daily just make sure to do it regularly, it may just take longer.


If you are patient and persevere you should be rewarded, with happy, confident and relaxed horses. On many occasions this problem is actually solved quicker than you would expect... GOOD LUCK!!





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