Training a Horse with Separation Anxiety
To overcome the problems associated with separation anxiety,
form a better bond with your horse so he respects and takes
confidence in your leadership.
By Camie Heleski
Question: My 14-year-old First Level Thoroughbred gelding freaks
out anytime he is around another horse and that horse leaves.
For example, during a hack, we passed two horses in a fenced
field. When we left them behind us, he started yelling, rearing
and spinning to try to run back to them. I dismounted and had to
lead him home. Otherwise, he is a lovely horse, and I would like
to show him. Do you have any suggestions?
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Answer: If you evaluate these situations from the horse's
perspective, they are not at all unusual. The horse takes great
comfort in the instinct that there is safety in numbers. It is
quite natural and common for a horse to form nearly immediate
social bonds with other horses, particularly if the horse is in
a venue that may make him a bit uneasy to start with, such as
trail riding. Admittedly, your gelding is 14, but you may have
to treat him like a "baby" for the time being.
When your horse is acting as you described, it is indeed a
dangerous situation, and you must take care not to get hurt.
Dismounting and leading your horse is perfectly acceptable under
the circumstances. I believe people get too hung up on the idea
that they must ride their way through every bad or new scenario.
Your horse will have more confidence in these situations if you
are on the ground. For example, when I train horses to cross
rivers, quite often I will dismount and lead the horse through
it the first time or two. Yes, my boots get wet, but it is much
easier to convince the horse that the river isn't a monster if I
am willing to walk through it myself. Take care, though, that
you know how to safely handle your gelding from the ground and
that you are the dominant partner in your relationship with him,
which I will explain a little later.
But before that, when your horse throws these fits, make sure
not to inadvertently reinforce them. If you allow yourself to
become nervous, your horse sees this as reinforcement that he
should be worried about the other horse leaving him. If you
shorten the workout, your horse may see this as a reward for his
poor behavior. No matter how much the quality of the workout may
diminish, you must continue until the horse is again tuned into
you. You can go back to simple movements for a while until he
eventually returns his focus to you.
If you have problems on the trail and feel more comfortable
walking him back to the ring, continue working him in the ring
until he has calmed down. The next time you go out on the
trails, try taking a "babysitter" or older, quiet horse with
you. As your horse gains confidence, the babysitter can be
progressively farther away and eventually eliminated.
One possible cause for your horse's lack of response to you
during these situations is that he does not yet accept you as
the dominant member of your partnership. Many horses go along
willingly for their riders as long as everything is a
comfortable environment, but as soon as the situation becomes
unnerving, the horse is not willing to place complete confidence
in his rider.
Theoretically, a horse should form a surrogate bond with his
rider that normally he would form with other horses in his
heard. Watch other riders interact with their horses: You will
see some people are obviously the more dominant member of the
horse-person team, and you will see other pairs where it is
clear the horse has the upper hand.
To form a better bond with your horse, work on establishing his
respect for your body language by developing on-the-ground
skills, such as leading quietly and standing still while you
groom and tack him. Longeing and round-pen exercises also
develop the partnership you are seeking with your horse.
Depending on your horse's personality, you may need to be more
decisive or stern when you give him a command to halt on the
lead line so he learns to listen and respond to you. Or you may
need to approach what you want him to do more quietly and
patiently--but still firmly--if he frightens easily. The input
of a skilled trainer who can personally observe your
interactions can be helpful.
I do not think this problem will prohibit you from showing this
horse, but it will take a great deal of patience, training and
confidence on your part to overcome his anxiety. Wait to try
showing until your horse is confident and listening well to you
Camie Heleski coordinates the Michigan State University Horse
Management Program. She also teaches horse behavior,
horsemanship, judging and exercise physiology at the university.
She rides her Arabian/Trakehner at the lower levels of dressage
in Mason, Michigan.
This article is excerpted from Dressage Today, March 2002.