INSTINCTIVE HORSE TRAINING with MELANIE S WATSON
Introducing the subject=Part 2 The complex issue of Separation Anxiety in Horses
https://www.instinctivehorsetraining.co.uk/young-horse-training/separation-anxiety-in-horses-part-1/ on this huge subject of separation anxiety in horses, I covered the reasons as to why this emotional state happens to some individual horses. I explained the causes and where they can all stem from. In this part 2 article, I am covering what separation anxiety looks like. The observable behaviours and the predictors will likely elicit this unwanted emotional state in a horse.
What does separation anxiety in horses look like?
Suffering horses show inconsolable grief. Their behaviour can become extremely manic and has the potential to become very dangerous for not just the horse. Horse owners and handlers have to deal with this situation and can put them in the line of fire.
The observable behaviours related to separation anxiety will become obvious if a suffering horse is ever left on its own or if changes in its immediate environment predict that it is likely to be left on its own. The horse will quickly become over its emotional threshold and its brain and body will immediately be filled with adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises the heart rate and evokes primal freeze, flight or fight emotions. Cortisol is the stress hormone that drives the horse into primal behaviours to find safety. In this heightened state of fear-driven arousal, the horse will be displaying abject fear behaviours.
Inside a stable or in a small confirmed area,
Inside a stable or in a small confirmed area, the suffering horse will boil over emotionally as its threshold or tolerance level is reached. Manic behaviours will come to the fore. The horse will start rushing around and around inside that space looking for a way to escape. It is very likely that it will charge at the door, rearing up at the door and trying to jump out. If a human is caught up inside this situation then it is very likely that he will be crushed at the door, squashed against the walls, trodden on or even kicked. At this moment, the horse will only ever perceive you as a threat to its wellbeing. You will not exist to that horse as anything other than to be avoided or got rid of. Getting a headcollar on at that moment in time in order to try to remove the horse can be a huge risk to the human.
Unfortunately, suffering horses will soon learn to associate us, humans, with forcing imprisonment and denying them access to the one place it feels safe- its bonded partner horse or herd. They could develop avoidance behaviours where they will not be caught.
Separation stress will elicit vocalisation. The horse will start to whiney and call out at the top of their voices, reaching out to any other horse for a reply. This may still happen even while surrounded by unbonded horses if their friend of choice is removed.
In a field, an inseparable horse will suffer an emotional meltdown if its friend is taken away or if it perceives that the human will be trying to remove him from that environment.
Its grief will be exhibited with the same behaviours as described above with confinement in a stable. That suffering horse will try hard to re-join its friend. In this heightened state and left on its own in a field, it may well try to run through or jump the gate or the fencing. It will start to pace the fence or gallop around the field.
If a human is trying to lead the suffering horse away from its friend, then be prepared for rearing, striking out with its front legs, spinning, pulling back, reversing, being dragged or even being run over. In this heightened state, hurting itself or hurting you will not be a consideration. The fact is that being left alone is so averse to that horse that, come what may, it will try to find its way back to the company of another horse or its bonded partner.
In extreme circumstances, experiencing separation can lead to an emotional system called Rage
In extreme circumstances, experiencing separation can lead to an emotional system called Rage – this is the very last place on earth we would wish our horse to visit. Resource guarding their pal can mean that this suffering horse could turn aggressive to any human approaching. It could charge at you with ears pinned back and do anything to stop you from gaining access to the other horse. Equally, it may learn that it needs to control that other horse so as to never allow it to become caught by a human. In this case, you will be witnessing herding behaviours. Most horse-owning humans would perceive and label these horses as dominant and dangerous. It is common to have these horses labelled as bullies and as being nasty, whereas in actual behavioural terms, that horse is just trying to control its environment so that it can feel safe.
In this article, I have taken some of the observable separation anxiety behaviours to the extremes, but mark my words- it is a very common occurrence worldwide.
There may well be gradual indicators in behaviour to alert you of the emotional state of your horse. My advice is to listen to your horse. There is never unwanted behaviour for no reason and every single behaviour is telling you something. Separation anxiety problems can be helped and changes can be made developing calmness in situations and on their own, willingness to check in with you and want to stay with you, confidence in their own skin and build mutual trust within your relationship.
It requires a very well thought out plan of campaign
The modification training is slow and you must be patient. Every day you will be setting up the training in small increments, a little longer in separated duration or a little further away from the “safe” place. It requires the use of systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Operant training with positive reinforcement and target training will come into the mix once a degree of emotional shift has occurred. This is the role of a horse behaviour consultant to mentor you through all the specifics, explain all the relevant terminology thoroughly and plan how you can manipulate your own environment to set up training
For help and advice, contact me for a Video call Behaviour Consultation. My role is to help horse owners be able to help their horses.
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