Updated: Feb 27
Horses are herd animals, they are designed to live a life within a social network that stays in close proximity of each other at all times, otherwise they risk their lives. Horses are born knowing that there is safety in numbers, that they need to stay close to their mothers and also stick closely with the herd they are born into. If at any point they are caught too far from the herd, especially if they are very young or old or physically compromised, they could be on the menu for the closest predator OR risk getting stolen or attacked by neighboring herds. In short… leaving the herd = death or permanent separation to a horse. What this means is that being buddy sour/herd bound/having separation anxiety is completely normal for horses and shouldn't be considered a bad thing.
Knowing this should help us be more compassionate and understanding of our horses when they are stressed during separation from their herd. Whether that’s to go up to the barn for a quick grooming or meal, to head to the show grounds, or even just out on a lone trail ride. It also brings up a good question that we should be asking ourselves. Regardless of how normalized it is…
Is it ethical to expect our horses to
Live alone? To spend time separated from their herd?
Cope with frequent changing of herd members?
How long and how far away from the herd can we ask them to go in good consciousness? What about routine separation of a herd that’s turned out for part of the day together and then dispersed into various stalls at night?
These are tough questions, but ones we should be asking ourselves. We should be asking ourselves and answering these questions not based off of our own wants and desires… not based on what’s easiest and normal for us… but on what our horse needs. This may require us to make changes in our expectations and in our routines with our horses. It may mean finding a different living arrangement for your horse, even if it takes some time to find. Putting the needs of the species first, above our own desires, is tough and may mean we don’t get to go on solitary trail rides or that we have to groom our horses in the pasture rather than the barn. If we really love horses though, we should love horses for who they are.. Not who we want them to be.
Recommended Reading: Telling the difference between fear and panic (aka separation anxiety
With that being said though, I want to share with you that it is possible to make separation an enjoyable experience for our horses. Through a process of counter conditioning we can build a positive association with temporary separation from the herd. This is critical I think for our domestic horses, as we are often in difficult positions where we can’t control when certain horses leave the herd for a riding lesson or maybe an emergency happens and they have to travel alone somewhere. We can make these situations much less stressful for our horses by properly preparing them ahead of time, and we can do that by practicing making separation a fun and positive experience for them. This process can be so successful that many horses become more than happy to ride out alone, go to the barn without the rest of the herd, travel alone quietly confidently, and really seem to enjoy leaving the herd for the experience they know awaits them when they do. Some horses though, may never quite get that confident though. They may be able to cope in an emergency, but it will never be their first choice, and that’s okay.
Really in a nutshell… it’s all about making every time they even take one step away from the herd a truly positive experience for them, and then to build on that. Each and every time they leave the herd, something positive needs to happen like food or an R+ focused training session.
First it may just be one step away from the herd, then it’ll build to ten steps, then on the other side of the pasture fence, then to the near by pen or pasture, then to just out of eyesight, then out of earshot.. And so it builds. Practicing distance and duration at different times and in different amounts, depending on the situation and the day. Always being very conscientious of building up the separation systematically and only as far as the horse in comfortable.
Forcing separation will only lead to increased anxiety and fear of separation. It’s critical the horse have the option to return to the herd at any time (during training), and that the handler/trainer is constantly aware of the body language of the horse as to not push them past their threshold.
Recommended Reading: Language Signs and Calming Signals Of Horses
Ideally, they shouldn’t even be pushed to the point of having to “cope”, but instead the degree of separation should always fall within their comfort zone and then be steadily increased from there. Over time that comfort zone will increase, as they learn to trust their handler and trust that it’s safe to be separated.. And part of that trust is trusting that they will get to return to the herd safely when they feel it’s necessary to do so.
With practice and a strong foundation, your horse will begin to trust you and trust leaving the herd. So when an emergency situation comes up it won’t be a big deal for them to leave the herd. I’ve also experienced first hand that even in times where the horse is hesitant, if the trust is there and enough positive history is built, I can ask my horse to “cope” and they are more likely to be able to do so without a major relapse or fallout on the backside. They aren’t just “giving in” and giving up, knowing they can’t fight me and that it’s the lesser of two evils to leave the herd… they actually choose to hang with me, trusting that there will be a good outcome for them, even if they aren’t sure.