I am often asked about separation anxiety, or attachment, and how to combat it. Horses are naturally social animals, and crave that interaction with other horses. However, this becomes a problem when they become too attached to another horse, or they become anxious when they are taken away from the herd (or horses are taken away from them). Ask yourself whether you are unwittingly contributing to the problem. For example, do you turn your horses out in quick succession? Do you always ride out with another horse? Do you stand next to another horse when you are waiting for your turn in the show jumping arena? You need to have a hard think about your management and routines if you want to combat separation anxiety in your horse…
With regards to management, try the following techniques;
1. TIE HORSES UP ON THE YARD. This gets them used to the comings and goings of other horses. At first they may get upset and move around each time another horse is moved, but after some time, they will become more patient and accept that if they stand quietly, they will get reunited or put back in their usual environment.
2. USE MY TYING UP EXERCISE IN THE YOUR HORSEMANSHIP PROGRAM (www.yourhorsemanship.com/online). Teach your horse this exercise and go through it each time they are tied on the yard. It gets their mind off the other horses, and switches their focus to you. Even if your horse still finds it difficult to settle, do this exercise before you turn them out, to show them where to stand to get a rest. The tying up exercise is also key in order to focus your horse’s attention and calm them down if they are “stressy” when you arrive at an event.
3. TRY TO AVOID PAIRS OF HORSES. If at all possible, turn horses out in groups of 3 or 4 rather than in pairs. Groups develop a hierarchy and are much less likely to form an attachment to one horse, which could cause issues when that “friend” is taken away. This video tip explains this in further detail, and why it is best to take a quiet horse to the “stressy” horse. https://yourhorsemanship.com/turn-out/
In ridden work, if you are struggling to ride out alone, then try this exercise;
Work in a field or arena with another, quiet, horse. Position the quiet horse and its rider in the middle of the arena, whilst you work your horse round the outside. Make them work fairly hard, before giving them a break well away on the outside track away from their friend. This will encourage them to think that they get a rest when they are away from their friend. NEVER go back and stand next to their friend when they are resting, even if you want to have a chat to the rider!
As with many issues that stem from a horse’s natural instinct, it takes time and consistency to overcome them. With separation anxiety, I find that often it is a matter of maturity and experience, too. Get a routine at home where your horse is apart from his mates, before progressing to new environments.