The Herd Instinct and why Horses react to Separation
Horses in the wild lived in groups consisting generally one stallion and a harem of mares hence the predisposition of mares to be more prone to anxiety at being parted. They feel safer in a herd so it is understandable that they will experience fear when faced with a new perceived ‘threat’ alone.
What exactly is separation anxiety?
- Separation anxiety is displaying distressed behaviour beyond that which is normally expected for the situation.
- It is a symptom of unresolved stress being internalised through raised cortisol levels. The horse will seek the comfort of the herd to feel safer. A chilled horse regarding their owner as one of the herd will look to that person for reassurance.
- It represents quite strong attachment of the paddock mate generally of the same species. (animal behaviourists rightly consider it a normal response of a herd animal.)
- A gelding, living with two mares may take over the natural role of protector (typical of stallions) of the mares, or the “harem,” becoming possessive and anxious if the mares are taken from him.
Personal case Study
At home here we have 2 mares, (picture above) the blue eyed skew bald Timor filly to be kept as a paddock mate for the sensible dappled grey riding horse. These two arrived some time ago practically joined at the hip. The deal was, I could have the mare as long as the little Timor came along too. That seemed perfectly doable until my first ride and I had to take the mare away to another paddock to school and then for a road ride. This ride was not entirely successful with me feeling anxious about the pony behind the two electric tapes that she had already successfully body-charged to get out, on her second day with us. On that, and only, occasion she literally squealed with delight at having got out which set the precedent for me to be extra vigilant about two electric strands and blocking all escape routes.
The next ride, after getting a new deer gate installed in the secure covered yard, she was left calling out from her enclosure even though we were still in sight for most of the time. Fortunately my mare didn’t bat an eyelid. I made sure that she had plenty to keep her mentally tuned into me so that was fine apart from the ‘toys’ being thrown out of the cot’ in the background.
We did the same thing the next day, the next and the next and so on….. Each day the performance got less dramatic and now only 4 weeks later no calling out or distress. The only one that suffers from separation anxiety during our rides is our old deaf foxie who needs to be confined to the garage for his safety.
This story illustrates the fact that if you stick to a routine of separating your horses incrementally increasing times and distance over a period of time, the problem will get less and eventually will disappear altogether.
Observations and Results
- I made very sure the contained one could not get free. This is not negotiable…ever. (If that happens you may never get a second chance to correct this problem.)
- I kept to a strict daily routine for the first few weeks.
- I provided the pony left behind with a reward of her favorite food. True many won’t eat a thing during that time and fret but this routine and predictable return of the paddock mate will eventually settle most horses.
- Leaving a companion behind and allow it to ‘deal’ with it. Not advisable.
- Take the horse out of the pasture and reward him with feed, as you did when you put him in a stall. But that doesn’t always work .
- Most successful is a permanent change in management and housing arrangements .
- Most geldings will settle down within a couple days after the mares are taken several kilometers away.
- Most mares will readily bond to a substitute, by having another companion.
- Medical or herbal intervention
The use of Food:
- Start by feeding them a very small feed separately. Walk him away from his friend towards his feed, providing he is not at this stage getting stressed and anxious, reward him with kind words and a pat.
- Then return him to his friend to be back in his comfort zone, and reward with kind words and a pat.
- Extend the feeding distance each day and reward with treats. Keep them still in view of each other. Ours love apples straight from the tree.
- Feed them a small favourite feed out of view of each other and bring them back together again with in minutes. Extend this time gradually.
- Bring the small feeds out at the same time, but take one horse away to another area a little way away for its feed. This means that he will be associating that move away with something he enjoys.
- Increasing the feeds/length of time by increasing the amount of feed you are giving. This will be lengthening the time spent away from their friend and being rewarded for it.
- Systematically expose young horses to separation from pasture mates, in an organized gradual way. This applies to older horses as well
- If a horse seems stressed by separation start exposing it to gradually increasing distances of separation, avoiding any events that might set the horse up for future panic.
- Get your horses used to being tied for long periods of time between 4 and 8 hours at a time.
- Horses that are not used to separation or being tied need to be tied more often. Incrementally increase the time. Initially always tie the horse where he can still see his paddock mate.
- Begin some short separations but not to the stage to where a horse gets panicked. Take one horse away for just a moment and return and continue it repeatedly.
- Once they are both calm, increase the time that one horse is out of sight. Each time push the distance a little further but always start with a short one. If distress occurs go back a step and reduce the time away.
- Begin with the horses tied near each other, and then each day increase this gap daily in stages until they can’t see each other at all maintaining a slow and steady approach to acclimating them to separation.
- Find ways to become as important to your horse as another horse. This requires a daily commitment to spend time with you horse and not just riding it. (We have encountered clients in our business who have such a strong bond with their horse to the extent that it is only comforted by this human contact)
- Make your time with him a pleasant experience and remember for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Stay calm around your equine ‘friend’ and remember they are governed by instinct. Flight when frightened.
- When taking one out to train- keep him attentive to you by providing distractions like obstacles and lots of transitions. Reward frequently and use a calm comforting voice. At this stage it is wise to allow them to see each other, occasionally moving out of sight and then only for short periods.
- Be consistent and take him out of his comfort zone incrementally only.
Only when you have mastered this at home would you be advised to venture out to a show and if you want to shorten the process, this is when veterinary and/or herbal calmers come into their own. Though again it needs to be stressed that behaviour modification is always the preferred and most reliable solution to what is an instinctual response.
Some of these medications used to calm horses,
- oral progesterone,
- l-tryptophan supplementation,
- additional magnesium, B vitamins,
Herbal Natural Treatment.
- Vitex agnes will act on the adrenals and help the natural production of progesterone in mares which is a calming hormone. It is also mildly sedating. This herb is also effective on geldings as well as mares in particular those that have stallion like protectiveness towards paddock mares.
- Vitex suppresses behaviour caused by testosterone which may help in managing mares and stallions at shows or stud farms. (This behaviour would be regarded as normal by most breeders)
- St John’s Wort can help generally settle the horse by raising serotonin levels which are responsible for feelings of contentment. This will need to be given over a few months for the changes to the neurotransmitters to be established.
- St John’s wort is suitable for horses that have developed weaving or crib biting through social disruption and anxiety.
- There are herbal treatments that act directly on the adrenals slowing the over production such as ashwagandha and in some cases anti-serotonic herbs may help.
- Some horses that habitually react to separation may develop stomach ulcers so behaviour modification is essential for the well-being of the horse. Chamomile will sooth the digestion and is suitable for horses prone to this.
- Feeding additional omega oils may also help with reactivity.
- Adjusting feed and the levels of sugars, grass concentrates will help reducethe intensity of the reaction and make the horses safer to handle when they are frightened.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this page must not be used in place of professional veterinary treatment . We recommend that either a qualified herbalist or your animal professional carry out diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Herbal remedies must not be given not be taken in conjunction with other medication with out consulting a medical professional.