AskHQ: Separation anxiety

Q: My horse won’t walk away from the barn to work, as he doesn’t want to leave his friends behind. How can I manage this?

A: This is most likely a case of separation anxiety, which is common and natural. No matter how much we domesticate or even isolate horses, they are inherently herd animals. It is programmed into their DNA, and research suggests that this has not changed in thousands of years. It is important that we respect this part of our beloved horses’ makeup.

There is unfortunately no short answer or quick fix for separation anxiety. Essentially, horses find comfort and safety around other horses. Our goal is to become a leader who they can trust and depend on to feel safe. In other words, you and your horse become a herd of two. This is not something you can force, as it is entirely up to your horse to follow your lead, but what you can do, is work on your horsemanship skills in order to become someone who your horse would like to be with. If you imagine the lead horse in a herd, who everyone follows, it may help to serve as an example of what you are trying to emulate. In my herd at home, it is a black mare named Callie who has a quiet strength, intelligence, calmness, confidence and assertiveness. She is not the biggest, nor is she a bully, yet the herd will go anywhere she goes, and scatter if she so much as wrinkles her nostril. They trust that mare completely to keep them safe because she is a strong leader. If I am ever in doubt about how to respond to another horse, I think to myself, “What would Callie do?”

This may sound vague, but the process of becoming the leader your horse needs is an intentional one that requires a lot of thought, time and consideration. Something to practise in the meantime is to take your horse for walks in-hand and gradually increase the distance from their friends. Try to avoid causing them too much stress and traumatising them. Rather allow them to be a little worried, then return and prove to them that they are safe with you and that you will not put them in danger. This trust is built slowly. As they grow in confidence and trust, the same can be repeated under saddle.

Answered by Shelley Wolhuter of Libratum Equus