Dealing with Separation Anxiety

When Freedom's two pasture mates went on a ride he stood at the fence, waiting for them to come back.
When Freedom's two pasture mates went on a ride he stood at the fence, waiting for them to come back. I turned him out with two other mares which kept him calm, but he never stopped watching for them.

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!

11 thoughts on “Dealing with Separation Anxiety

  1. Ah, the hardest thing to deal with in my opinion. My personal horse has horrible anxiety when he trailers with another horse and then that horse gets off the trailer and he is alone. If you can put him in a box stall where he can’t hurt himself that is a good option but in my old trailer he felt it necessary to extract himself from the trailer via going over the chest bar and out the door. He is strange in that if you are riding him away from the other horses he is just fine but just doesn’t like to be left by himself. He has gotten better over time but using drugs while leaving him in the trailer or just not leaving him alone is the best option so that he doesn’t self destruct.

  2. I have one that I can’t leave alone. If she’s in a pasture she’ll go over (or through) the fence. If she’s in a stall she’ll try to jump out or will weave so badly she works herself into a foam in 10 minutes. I’ve accepted that she can’t be left behind. We’re slowly working on going away from the herd, but she may never be a horse I can take on a trail ride or to a show. That’s just the way she is.

    1. I’m with you on this one. I will not trailer another horse if it needs to be dropped off first. It’s just not worth the risk to Freedom. He goes nuts.

  3. At pasture or in the barn, I often just let them have tantrums (while keeping fingers crossed). On the bright side, sometimes when we ride off/trailer away, all the others in the herd get their workouts, too :). Seriously though, even the ones that raced, some I know were paddocked alone during off season so they can deal! For trailering, that’s too dangerous for that approach. We actually have them stand in the trailer more often than tying them to it, so first of all they are more used to just standing in there. Say if they had to be in the trailer alone for awhile, I have used a sedative for insurance, but it does seem more about desensitizing that the trailer is just another “hangout”?

  4. It is something we all come across with horses, in one hand you want them to go off on there own and not be upset by the process but we are asking them to go against their nature.

    I slowly desensitization has always worked for me which also allows the horse to view you as part of his heard and teaches him to follow your lead. Ok so it takes longer and you have to make time to work with the horse but in the long run you have a horse that is able to be away from his friends, compete in a happy state of mind and without the use of chemicals or herbal solution.

  5. I have two geldings that have paired and I can not take one out without the other running the fences and making a lot of noise. I have had to resort to placing one in the cattle crush while I go out on the other because he is more contained and safer. I found that we were fine when we got out of earshot of the other, we settled down and all was okay. However, I now have the problem of actually leaving my property on horseback. Both go nuts and one in particular turns into a bronc horse which places both him and me at risk of injury. I have separated them into neighbouring paddocks with the view to slowly increase the distance between them and this has created many a night of interrupted sleep. Any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated! I have never in my 30 odd years of owning horses had to deal with this problem – there has almost always been one left behind no matter how many horses I have had at one time. Thanks.

  6. My horse doesn’t have separation anxiety from one horse most of the time – but he gets anxious about horses in the distance, whether he can see them or not, if he can smell and/or hear them. We moved him to our new house last night, and I was awakened at 4:30 this morning to the sound of him screaming his head off. Apparently the wind shifted and he smelled the horses and cattle two streets over – and the horses whinnied back/cattle mooed once they heard him. My other horse is at the house, too, so he’s not alone – but they aren’t in neighboring pens (we had to do some final work on the third before brining over horse #3 today) so he was frantic any time my mare moved out of his sight. Which she did frequently as she was exploring and didn’t care about him!

  7. Just got an event horse from a friend and put him in with another for about two weeks. I tried to separate them for the farrier the othere day, horses were within site of each other and the eventer jumped the gate. Not sure what to do next ? I may try to work with the eventer taking him farther and farther away each day so he knows he will come back. Do you think this will work? How long can you use Ace for and how long does it last?

    1. De-sensitizing is what works over the long term but Ace can help make it happen. Despite the myth that horses don’t learn while on Ace, I read a study recently that disproved this.

      If you give Ace IM it takes about 30 minutes to take effect (and the horse needs to be calm when you give it), and depending on how much you give, it will last for a couple of hours. Ace is one of those drugs where giving “more” makes the effects last longer but does not increase the amount of sedation. You should talk to your vet to see what might be an appropriate dosage if you wanted to try that.

  8. Yes oh boy we have the same problem. Except my 4 yr old filly doesn’t like to leave the barn. She’s wonderful in the indoor arena but to get her outside is a challenge- she’s 3/4 Tb and knows how to throw a tantrum. Yesterday we tried to go out in a field next to the barn wg a friend and she still had a fit. Our friend would trot on then come right back and it did no good; she wanted back in the barn. So much for making it a positive experience. So today even before I read this I had planned on trying the Ace..she’s on B1 already…so we will see.

  9. My horse has the same issue, he is the perfect school master while around other horses but when left alone he goes crazy, galloping into fences, repeatedly tries to dive through them, or jumps them. When we are out on cross country he freezes up the minute he exits the starting box and refuses to get within 20 metres of any jump. Drugs are not an option because he is a competition horse and having calming drugs while on cross country can be dangerous and cause accidents. Its so hard to deal with it because in show jumping and dressage he is a super star, and if we take him out on course with another horse he jumps like there is no tomorrow.
    Instead of drugging him we take him on long rides by himself and let him go at his own pace, if something is scary or he starts to panic I hop off and show him the scary thing (like say a dog I’ll go pat it or a tarp on the ground I will go stand on it with him) or if he has a tantrum I ignore it and start doing some of my dressage (whatever my instrustor has told me to work on) to take his mind off it, I let him stop to eat grass if he wants and always let him know i’m there (a pat or ‘good boy’) if he wants to canter i let him or trot i let him, if he wants to stand still and watch something I let him, because if he is comfortable with it then that is making him braver on his own and also making him realize he doesnt need to be upset with being away from his buddies. He is much better now, still is nervy at cross country but it will come in time. Remember, go at the horses pace, my horse is 9 but I treated him like he was just broken and didnt get mad at him for being upset, its not his fault his nervous, its thousands of years of being wild that has bred these horses into their instincts.

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