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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Separation anxiety

I found your site through a web search and liked the answers you offered other people having problems. I was hoping you could offer some advice to me.

I have a soon to be 17 year old thoroughbred gelding that I have owned since he was a baby of three months. We have had an up and down relationship since then but I have never given up on him. I have trained many hunter horses and ponies in the 30+ years that I have been riding but "Class" is the most unusual. He is such a contradictory animal. We have recently begun trail riding and he is wonderful. Always willing to go where I ask, even when he is uncertain. I know he cares a lot for me and always if affectionate. He trusts me unconditionally when I show him new things or have to use something new on him. He is very excepting and trusting. He had a nasty abscess recently and both the vet and the farrier had to dig at his foot for hours. By the time if was over he had broke out into a complete sweat but never once did he get nasty or try to fight!

My problem is he suffers from severe anxiety separation. If we go with one of his barn buddies (I can leave on my own but I have to keep a leg on him or he crawls) and he becomes separated from them (even briefly) he goes ballistic. He will (although not happily) leave them but if they leave him...whew. I have always considered myself a good rider but today I actually got off. When his barn buddy trotted ahead (still in site but maybe 20 feet in front) he blew. I pulled his head around and he literally began to spin. I tried to allow him to move forward and he side passed and cantered in place. Then he begins to rock and it feels like you are sitting on a volcano. I got off because he was dangerously backing into some barb wire that is on the one side of the rode. I walked him a short distance and remounted but he never settled back down.

I feel that he has such confidence and trust in me that today was really a surprise. He has always had this problem but the reaction is not usually this explosive. He was with three other horses when only the one left. I just don't get it. I am also not sure what my response should be and how I need to correct him when this happens. After this episode he was extremely worked up the entire ride home.

The other problem I have with him is when he is put in a stall. Typically he is in a big pasture with 5 mares. My farrier has requested that I stall him for several hours a day due to problems with his hooves and the moisture from the field. He comes to me when I call and goes in with only slight hesitation (he usually does what I ask, even when he hates it!). Once he is in, the fun starts. He runs from side to side, calls and stomps and works himself into a lather. I was ready to give up after the first day but am trying to hang in there. I have tried to make it as pleasant as possible but nothing helps. Even if there is another horse next to him he doesn't calm down. He won't eat anything in the stall. I really have to make this work in order to get his feet time to dry out. Any suggestions other than just repetition? I would really like to see him enjoy his stall like most horses seem to....

Sorry to be so long but if you have any thoughts, I would really appreciate it!

Happy New Year!!

Johanna & 'Class'

Hi Johanna,

Thank you for your question. The best way I know of to get any horse over herd bound behavior (separation anxiety) is a gradual approach, over time. There is no quick fix. You ask me; "Any suggestions other than repetition?" Not really. But what needs to be added to the repetition is reward for calm and that the separations begin as short times and gradually increased to long and longer times apart. You could provide a consequence for the unwanted bahavior. The consequence is movement. But it may take a lot of movement before the horse looks for a break. You would have to set up the situation where you know the behavior will happen. You would then need to be prepared to provide the consequence of the movement. Movement such as circles around you are the least traumatic. This could be termed negative reinforcement. A positive reinforcement approach is rewarding a few moments of calm when the situation is set up where the other horse is moved away and brought right back and your horse is rewarded for a bit of calm. Then, the time when they are apart is gradually lengthened as you attempt to keep your horse calm and reward that calm behavior. The basic same approach is done under saddle. Get good at leg yields (especially hind-quarter yields) that would be a consequence (negative reinforcement). Be ready to reward the moments of calm (positive reinforcement). The big reward is to put the horse away for the day. The theory being if he remains calm, he doesn't have to work. These are the basic ways that herd bound behavior is conditioned out of a horse. When going out with "barn buddies" don't allow them to go very far ahead before the turn and come back. Reward your horse for staying clam by him simply standing there and receiving praise. Then gradually increase the distance. Also, get good at the leg yields before you go out, so they become very natural and he does them comfortably and like breathing (you as well).

Getting him better in the stall may be the biggest challenge. Again, the only thing I know of to suggest is a gradual approach to the time your horse is alone in the stall. it is possible he may never really enjoy or relax when left alone. This could be the bottom line reality of your situation. Not everything that comes up for horses is fixable. Most things are over time through "repetition", patience, gradually increased time frame and consistency. You could consider a mascot for your horse. Some other animal (goat, dog, pony, something) that may serve to help him with his separation anxiety (fear of being alone). There are many high end horses that have the same problem which is helped through a companion animal. Nothing is quick. Good Luck.....

Happy New Year, Franklin

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