Question: Recently, my 15-year-old gelding has become very attached to another gelding on the farm. He’s not behaving dangerously (yet) when taken away from his buddy, but he neighs and seems generally very anxious when alone. I’m worried he’s stressed and that his anxiety will escalate with time. How do I help him overcome his attachment?
Answer from Camie Helesi, PhD: This behavior is natural, though challenging, to deal with. In the wild, horses benefit from having strong bonds with one another. Although this can make life more difficult for horse owners, I still strongly recommend providing horses plenty of turnout in the company of others, rather than denying them this natural social connection.
Domesticated horses seem to develop the worst separation anxiety when they live together in pairs for long periods of time. Typically, the horse who is left behind in the barn or pasture gets more upset than the one you take away. Keeping horses in groups of at least three is often much more manageable, as you can take one out without leaving one alone.
Regardless, your horse’s behavior likely will improve over time. Horses have a remarkable ability to get used to scary or challenging situations like these. For example, they will initially react in fear to hot-air balloons flying overhead. But if it continues to happen with any frequency, they’ll react a little less each time until they’re completely accustomed to the balloons. The same thing happens in the wild: Horses become habituated to things that are seemingly dangerous at first so long as those things recur frequently with no negative results.
Frequency is the key. If you remove your horse from his buddy once a month, his behavior might not improve significantly. But if you do it three times a week, you may be surprised how quickly he improves.
It always helps to break big challenges into tiny steps. For example, it would be too much to ask a horse to cross a stream for the first time on his first trail ride without any companions. You’d be more successful introducing stream crossings in the company of an experienced horse before attempting them on your own.
If your horse gets anxious alone in the barn or in the ring at home, put his buddy in an adjacent stall or paddock where he can see him. Then gradually move the buddy farther away over subsequent sessions. Try to stay calm and ignore any anxious behavior either horse exhibits. Raising your emotional level by yelling, for example, will just upset him further.
When he is the one left behind in the stall or paddock, give him some hay to distract him. (Be sure to check that your fencing is sturdy and safe before leaving him alone in a pasture.) Keep the separation periods short at first so he can get used to the idea gradually. With enough repetition, he will improve.
You may find it easiest to trailer him alone. Horses tend to bond quickly with one another when trailered in pairs. If you then tie one of those horses to the trailer and take the other away, the former will be understandably distraught. If you must trailer with another horse, but have the option to stable on the showgrounds, consider asking the show manager to place the two horses far apart, in separate barns if possible. When you arrive, unload one horse at his barn and then drive the other to his. Ideally, they’ll never know that they’re on the same grounds. This can be more difficult logistically—especially if you and the other horse’s owner are sharing a tack stall—but your horse will adapt quickly and whinny much less.
On the other hand, if he gets nervous being alone in the show ring—and even the most experienced horses can have trouble transitioning from group classes to showing alone, for example, in a dressage ring—it’s OK to position a calm babysitter ringside. Have a friend stand with the babysitter as close to the ring as the rules allow and be sure your horse knows he’s there before you enter the ring. Over time, with plenty of repetition and patience, his confidence will grow and your friend can gradually position the babysitter farther and farther away.
Equine-program instructor Dr. Camie Heleski taught at Michigan State University for 25 years before accepting her current role as a senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Her research focuses primarily on equine welfare and behavior. She is also the president of the International Society for Equitation Science, which encourages “ethical equitation” by promoting scientific research designed to study the most humane ways to train and care for horses. (For more information on this organization and to read its position statements on various issues, go to www.equitationscience.com.) A lifelong rider, Dr. Heleski has shown Arabians, hunt seat, Western and saddle seat and now enjoys practicing lower-level dressage.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.