I believe that separation anxiety is by far the most common and troublesome problem people face with their horses. It may show up in different ways with different horses such as bucking in some or failure to trailer load in others or even a lack of straightness or fidgetiness at the mounting block. There is no limit to how separation anxiety may be expressed by different horses.
We often think of horses as being highly food motivated, and this is true. But in general gluttony does not even get a look in when it comes to what is most important to a horse, that is safety. Horses get their sense of safety from living with other horses – the so-called “safety in numbers” theory prevails here. For most horses, the herd effect is so important that they will leave food to go with the herd. Most people who study horse behaviour use food as a reward and incentive to perform, but I think it would be a fascinating study to substitute food with companionship and test which one was the more effective drive. I am pretty confident that with few exceptions, companionship would be the decisive winner.
I have known a horse that when its paddock mate was taken away it run up and down a fence line for hours and hours until it bled from the soles of its hooves and still kept running, not stopping to eat or drink. I’ve seen horses run through several barbwire fences, shredding its legs and chest, to pal up to another horse. I have heard of a horse that jumped out of a moving stock trailer when it saw horses in a paddock by the side of a road. It is unlikely that any horse would have done these things just for a few mouthfuls of grass or a bucket full of grain. That’s because food is not as important as companionship to most horses. Horses don’t feel the absence of food is a risk to their survival. They like food, maybe even love food, but they don’t view a lack of food as a near-death experience. However, the herd instinct is so strong and so important in horses that the absence of a herd evokes very strong survival instincts. Horses are wired in such a way that a lack of companionship is a life-threatening experience.
Of course, training and experience can shape a horse’s outlook on the need to be part of a herd. If done well, we can teach a horse that its safety is not at risk just because it is alone in the paddock or we take it on a trail by itself. But because the herd instinct is an innate need in a horse that is genetically programmed I don’t believe we can ever eradicate it from a horse, no matter how well we approach the training. We may be able to ameliorate the symptoms but never extinguish the desire.
One reason I say this comes from my own experience with horses that don’t get along very well in a herd. On several occasions, I have had good success of transforming the relationship of two horses that did not get along at all into something close to being friends or at the very least tolerant of each other. This has come about by putting both horses in a trailer, taking them somewhere unfamiliar, letting them out to rest for 10 or 20 minutes, then loading them back into the trailer and taking them home. At first, one worries they will kill each other in the trailer, but after going to a new place and coming home again the relationship has turned from foes to friends. My explanation for this is that the horses have shared a traumatic event and their only security came from being together. This would only be possible because it is their nature to feel safe in the company of another horse. I view it as being akin to two strangers being stuck in an elevator for an hour. By the time they are rescued they are good friends who exchange telephone numbers and promise to stay in touch.
I am guessing that most of you reading this are in agreement that companionship is a hugely important instinct in a horse’s life. I am also guessing that many recognize the importance that it plays in your relationship and the work you do with your horse. But I suspect a lot of you are wondering when I will get to the part that tells you how to fix separation anxiety when it gets in the way of doing stuff with your horse. Well, the short answer is for you to fill in the gap that the absence of other horses has created. The long answer is in almost every post I have written and every video I have made. It’s a big picture approach to getting a grasp of a horse’s thoughts that should be in everything we do with a horse.
But this post is not about how to fix separation anxiety. It’s intended to help you appreciate the role of the herd instinct in a horse’s life. It should be a large part of all that you think about when it comes to housing your horse, training your horse, doctoring your horse, catching your horse, presenting yourself to your horse and so and so on.
We usually only consider our horse’s need to be part of a herd when it gets in the way of our training and when it doesn’t we don’t give it much thought. But it would be a failure on our part to be good horse people because the herd instinct is present in almost every decision and choice a horse makes. It doesn’t get turned on and off at moment of most inconvenience. It’s always there whether lurking under the surface or as conspicuous as a burlesque drag queen.