Separation anxiety- what causes it, and how can we help our horses?

Calling horseHow many horses do you know that neigh frantically, fence walking and showing signs of extreme stress when their friend is taken away from them?

Many horses suffer from ‘separation anxiety’ – either when they are left on their own, or taken away from their companions. In some cases even if other horses are present they can get very distressed if a chosen ‘friend’ is separated from them, screaming, rushing around, refusing to eat, and getting very agitated.  It is very upsetting for both horse and owner, and the increased risk of injury or stress related illness can be a problem.

As herd animals, most horses dislike being alone and develop very strong friendship bonds, becoming very upset when they are taken away from their mate. For this reason, it is common practice for Racehorses to have a companion pony or animal with them when they are travelling around, to reduce stress:  even dogs, chickens and monkeys have been used!

Common causes of equine separation distress

There are several scenarios when separation anxiety is more likely to occur, and by knowing when these are we can try to reduce the stress for our horses. A very common cause of anxiety is mare and foal separation during weaning, separation of closely bonded pairs of mares, and separation of an alpha male (often a gelding) from his group of mares (even geldings cut at a young age may show stallion-like tenancies if turned out with a group of mares and take on a role of ‘protector of the herd’).

How can we help?

A certain degree of separation anxiety is inevitable, especially with highly strung breeds, as living in a herd with specific social ties is innate behaviour for horses. However, past experiences also have major effects on whether or not your horse shows any anxious behaviour if separated from a friend.

As owners, we can help our horses by making sure that from a young age any necessary separation undertaken is as stress free as possible: try to get the horse to associate being alone with something positive, such as being fed treats or being groomed.

  • When weaning foals, do it gradually and keep the foals in groups near their dams to minimise any stress.
  • If possible when first turning a horse out on their own, chose a warm sunny day, and make sure they are in a field with plenty of grass to keep them amused!
  • If the horse behaves on their own, reunite them with their mate after 30 minutes or so, before any bad behaviour occurs, making single turnout/stabling a positive experience.
  • Try to avoid making an issue of everyday situations, ensure that they are not turned out/ brought in on their own, and try to find somewhere to keep them were it is unlikely that all horses visible on the yard would be taken away at once.

Supplements to reduce anxiety

Even when you do everything right and try your hardest to keep separation stress to a minimum, some horses have a nervous disposition and do not do well on their own. If you know your horse has anxious tenancies, feeding a calming supplement on a daily basis can have a positive effect, making the situation much less stressful for the horse. Steady-Up Advance is a very effective calmer, providing B-vitamins and two types of magnesium to help reduce stress, as well as  naturally occurring tryptophan, an amino acid which encourages serotonin release (the happy hormone!) and calming herbs to promote calm relaxed behaviour.

If you don’t often need to separate your horse from a companion, or you have never done it before, a high strength one-off calmer may be a better option. Feedmark’s MagnaFeed is a fast-acting calming syringe, containing highly available magnesium combined with antioxidants. This is best given an hour before the separation occurs, as a quick and natural way to reduce stress.

Olivia Colton MSc, Nutritional and Technical Co-ordinator