Due to the natural herding instinct in horses, when a horse is separated from a field companion or another horse in the stable, separation anxiety can occur. According to the President of the Equine Research Foundation, Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PHD, separation anxiety in horses is common not only because of the need for socialization and companionship and the herd mentality, but also because horses, which were a prey species in the wild, still feel the survival instinct to practice safety in groups, even if they were born domesticated. As a group, they can protect themselves from predators more effectively.
Behaviors of Equine Separation Anxiety
Similar to humans and dogs, for instance, if horses are separated from other horses and worse yet, isolated, they can exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety. They may not spend as much time grazing as they normally would and instead spend more time vocalizing. They may also continuously run along the fence in response to their anxiety. Some horses, according to Jill Nugent, could eventually self-injure themselves.
A horse’s cortisol level may increase over a longer period of separation, which is damaging to their internal systems. Younger horses can suffer trauma when separated quickly from their mother or their “herd”, and the same could be true for adult horse companions that have spent years bonding together. According to Parelli, a horse training group that focuses on a natural approach, the horse’s emotional security can be jeopardized, as well.
Rank and Separation Anxiety
Because they are herd animals, horses tend to also have statuses or ranks within their herds, and while it would seem obvious that the more subordinate horses would experience greater separation anxiety, the exact opposite is actually the truth. On the contrary, most publications, including this on Training Horses Naturally, explain that the horses that are more dominant will experience greater anxiety when separated from their group, even if they are placed into another group. This is because it is more difficult to acquire a dominant position in a new, established group than it is to step into a subordinate role.
Managing Separation Anxiety Naturally
Each individual horse will need a special approach to being separated from its companion or herd. Parelli suggests separating horses slowly, thereby “preparing” the horse for separation. For example, start separating the horse for small periods of time. This can be done by tying the horse in one spot, where they can still see their companion or herd, for a short period of time, building up to 4 to 8 hour time spans. Then, start with short periods of separation, beginning with only a short period of time and building up slowly as the horse realizes that their companion will be there when they return. Separation preparation should occur over the course of a week or two, whether the horse is a foal being separated from the mother or an adult horse being separated from its companions. This slower separation will build confidence in the horse.
It is highly recommended to start getting horses used to being separated early in their lives by incorporating separation training into their regular training. This way, aggressive behaviors and separation behaviors can be avoided in the future. It is also recommended that horse owners prevent separation anxiety altogether by preventing the deep bonding between horses in the first place. However, while horses will enjoy the companionship of dogs, sheep, goats and people, there is nothing that replaces the bond between horses, and they should be kept in the natural environment, around other horses.
Ultimately, it is widely recommended, despite the rank and status issues, to place a horse that is being separated from its companion, herd or mother, into another group of horses. This minimizes the stress that would occur if, for instance, the horse was isolated in a barn stall, as isolation is going to make the horse more anxious than having a new group of companions. Isolation is perceived by horses as punishment, therefore it is vital to encourage the horse with positive reinforcement and help to build his/her confidence about being separated.