Sadly, separation anxiety in horses and all its specific behavioural manifestations, is one of the most common problem areas I see as a behaviour consultant. It is a big part of the work I do either physically or remotely through video consultations and support. The effects of separation anxiety can be found in every type of animal from puppies and dogs, commonly suffered in humans and can stretch as far as to the exotic and wild breeds who are illegally harvested for the pet trade industry worldwide.
Back to my subject and the effect on horses. It’s a very traumatic situation for the horse and an enormously difficult situation for the horse owners and yard managers to manage or even understand. I’m going to add right now that this is fixable but it takes real understanding of horse behaviour and management protocols to start the process of training this enormous fear out of the suffering individual. Seek guidance from an Equine Behaviour Consultant so that every stage is managed correctly and that the outcome is a calm horse who can face life on his own away from other horses.
What is separation anxiety in horses?
Separation anxiety is a direct result of massive emotional trauma. Somewhere along the line that horse has been ripped away from a bonded partner and a place or environment where it feels safe. This can happen several times to horses during their lifetimes as they are basically a commodity to be sold and passed on.
A vast amount of scientific study and data has shown that separation anxiety most commonly starts as a result of a “cold turkey” type of weaning experience in young foals. This is where the foal is totally separated from its mum in one fell swoop, with no preparation work or training done. One minute the foal feels completely safe and content with its world, the next minute it is shut inside a high doored stable and mum is taken away. Both horses suffer emotionally and enormously during this process. Mum is usually taken far enough away so that neither can hear each other. The foal will remain inside that stable for at least a week and is “handled” by the human. A common practice during this time is that the foal will be tied to a wall for long periods so that it learns not to pull away from the restriction. A dreadful way to train any animal.
What is the likely effect of this whole experience? The outcome of this process is to have the foal feel something called learned helplessness. Achieved, it means the foal gives up fighting to escape and find mum and becomes docile. It will then get turned out with other horses, hopefully more babies or at least playful partners. That foal will look for safety and find one new horse which it will latch onto and become bonded with. Sadly in its life, that foal is likely to be sold and moved on, losing all that safety again. Each time this happens the emotional trauma is revisited and its need to bond with another becomes stronger and its ability to live on its own becomes more fragile.
How they are weaned can have a massive effect on their entire futures. The weaning process does not need to be done this way. Please seek guidance from an Equine Behaviour Consultant to learn about best practice in gradual and systematic separation training so that neither the foal nor its mum never visit the horror of what I have described. Just because it has always been done this way does not mean this harsh practice should continue.
What other causes of separation anxiety are there?
Separation anxiety can be seen in every single type of horse who has ever suffered the emotional trauma of losing a bonded partner or partners. It is certainly a very common problem with ex-racehorses when they come out of their highly conditioned lives while in training. The most money to be won in horse racing is as a 2 year old. These babies are rushed into work from being a yearling, at a time where they are three years too young physically or emotionally to be put into work. They are made to live on their own in a stable for usually 23 out of every 24 hours, surrounded by all the other islanded horses and are rarely turned out in fields. The time out of that stable will be for exercise, either ridden or on a horse walker.
There is a positive move with the more modern day thinking racehorse trainers who have started to turn their horses out regularly – because they become happier, less stressed, less prone to illness and stress induced stomach ulcers, stronger physically and are generally more trainable as a result. Usually they are in single turn out paddocks to reduce the risk of injury. However, the majority of racehorses never see a field while in training.
The whole process of producing 2 and 3 year old racehorses denies them any right or ability to grow and develop in a natural herd environment or in a natural way at all. This means they never learn how to be a normal horse. Sure, they all go out on exercise together, they run races together and they travel together but there is never a time where they get to live and interact as a herd. Massively important natural developmental behaviours are denied – like mutual grooming or play. Racehorses can live like this for years and years, conditioned to being islanded. The rate of attrition within this industry is very high (classed as wastage).
When their racing days are over, they are generally sold on directly to slaughter houses for the French market place, cheaply to dealers who send those too difficult to slaughter, through the sales grounds (where the meat man buys) and to private individuals. Many unsuspecting people who have no idea just how complicated re training an ex racehorse end up buying them. They hold little monetary value so are cheap and affordable.
The trouble starts when any suffering or emotionally fragile horse finds a home where it is allowed group turn out. They will bond excessively strongly to one particular horse and then they become impossible to separate.
PART 2 in next month’s issue. “What does separation anxiety in horses look like and how can we help fix these issues in behaviour?”