Freedom is a worrier. And one of the things that worries him the most is being left alone.
Partly it’s his nature. Horses are herd animals and when they are separated from “their” herd, it can make them anxious. Interestingly, it’s often Alpha horses who suffer more from separation anxiety than less dominant herd members.
Partly it’s his personality. There are four other horses at the barn and although they certainly notice if the other horses leave, they don’t run themselves into a frenzy until their friends return. One, in fact, seems to like being alone as it reduces the competition for the hay.
Partly it’s his experience — after all, horses on the track are never alone so they never learn that it’s okay or that the other horses will eventually come back. When he was retired at age 6 he’d probably never been alone.
Partly it’s training. Freedom has gotten a lot better over the years. When I first got him, if I rode off on my other horse he would go ballistic and run frantically along the fence line until we returned. Putting him in a stall was not an option as he would weave so violently that I feared he’d injure himself.
Initially I would give him Ace. That helped take the edge off of his panic and he eventually learned that we would return. Eventually, by the end of the summer, he’d run for a minute or two then settle down and graze. Unfortunately, after a few months of bad weather, when he was not separated from his friend, we’d have to start all over again!
Freedom has never been bad about leaving. I know some people who have horses that throw tantrums when asked to ride away from the barn. Freedom could care less about that. He’s always up for an adventure and he’s bonded enough with me that he doesn’t feel alone. It’s when other horses leave that he still melts down.
So, how can you address separation anxiety?
As a horse owner you can try a couple of things.
Never leave your horse alone. This might sound silly, but I know someone who took this approach. Her horse was a very successful event horse who could not be left alone. Not in the barn. Not in turnout. Not in a trailer. It made it difficult but since he was in a large boarding facility, they made it work.
Cross your fingers and let them have a tantrum. This always worried me. I didn’t want to come back to a horse that was injured and mentally fried. If I thought he would calm down within a reasonable amount of time, I would have tried it. Some horses are calmed if they are kept in their stalls, but others just get more frantic. You have to know what will work for your horse.
Better living through chemicals. Acepromazine, or Ace, is one of the most common tranquilizers used because it also helps with anxiety. I had never given Ace to a horse before Freedom but it definitely helped keep him from hurting himself and because he didn’t get so anxious, he learned how to stay calmer. Ace can be given by IM or IV injection or orally, either by squirting the liquid into the mouth or feeding your horse pills. The biggest issue with something like Ace is that it really only works if you give it to your horse before he gets upset. (I’m going to talk more about Ace in a later post, so I won’t go into more details about it here).
In addition to Ace, there are some calming agents on the market that may or may not help. Magnesium usually has a calming effect on horses, as do B vitamins. With these types of calmers the results (in my experience) are hit or miss. Herbs such as Valerian have been shown to have a calming effect, but it is also illegal for showing so even if you are using a calming agent when not riding or competing, it’s important to understand how long it is detectable in your horse before using it.
Desensitization. Over the long run, this is what has worked for me — sometimes with a bit of Ace to help make it happen. With Freedom I started by just riding my other horse out of sight . . . then returning. Each time I left for a little bit longer. I won’t kid you. It was a pain in the butt to do, but over time it worked. I faced the same issue when I started trailering him alone. He would load just fine but once he realized he didn’t have a friend on board he would flip out. I learned that the best thing to do was jump in my truck and start driving. As soon as we were in motion, he would calm down but the first few times I loaded him by himself were interesting, to say the least.
Now I’ve got a new challenge. Sometimes one of his favorite mares comes to a hunt with us . . . but in a different trailer. He’s okay now loading at home by himself, even if Fortune doesn’t get on. But coming home? That’s a different story. The first time I tried it, a few weeks ago, I got him on the trailer just fine until he realized that she wasn’t getting on. The tantrum was epic and ended with a double barrel kick into the trailer ramp. Luckily he calmed down as soon as I could get in the truck and get the wheels turning and the next time we tried it he was better.
I’m currently trying Chinese herbs with him – Shen Calmer. Having a horse that flips out when left alone doesn’t make it easy for other boarders and if the herbs help him stay calm, it will make everyone’s experience better. It also doesn’t impact his coordination (I’ve not seen Ace adversely impact a horse but depending on the dose it can cause a horse to become less coordinated and more prone to stumbling).
He’s only been on it for a few days so I’ll have to let you know how it works.
Anyone else out there with a horse with separation anxiety? I’d love to know how you’ve dealt with it!