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Horse Behaviour – Separation Anxiety

| Animal Behaviour

 Horse Behaviour.

Separation Anxiety & Attachment Theory.


Welcome to the series of free articles on horse and dog behaviour. 

Please feel free to share the articles with others who might benefit … all we ask is that you include our website details so others can consider becoming a Natural Animal Centre Equine or Canine Behaviourist.

At the Natural Animal Centre we have one simple goal in life …

… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …


Every horse rider has a story about a horse that goes into a blind panic every time his equine companion is removed from the field.  And it’s certainly no fun trying to ride a horse that threatens to bolt back to the stables as soon as he moves out of sight of his companion.  But why is it that some horses seem so laid-back when they are separated from their equine friend and others simply seem unable to cope at all?

In this article we look at why it is that some horses become so upset when separated from their companion – why they suffer from a condition known by Animal Behaviourists as Separation Anxiety.  Although it may seem fairly obvious to most of us why a horse might be unhappy when his friend is taken away and he is left alone in the field, some astute horse owners have noticed that some horses are stressed even when the rest of the herd is still there to keep them company.

On the face of it, this does not seem to make sense, so is this behaviour uncommon or is it that we do not really understand why some horses get so anxious when left behind?

Childish Thoughts . . .

To answer this question, it helps if you understand a little about the work of some the child psychologists of the 20th century. By understanding the basis of the work of one psychologist in particular, John Bowlby, many answers can be found as to why some horses suffer from separation anxiety.

Bare is mind that horses, given the opportunity, pair with one another for companionship and mutual comfort and safety.  Without interference such a relationship may last for their entire lives.  (There’s more on Horses Needs in Heather’s books: Teach Yourself Horse Volumes 1 & 2 – available on our website under the Buy button.)

Bowlby was a fairly uniquely individual for his time because he was the first to show that children displayed equally intense feelings of anguish and mental pain as adults.  Importantly, he also discovered that the effects of long term separations of children from their parents could sometimes lead to delinquency, even mental illness, as the children became adults.  In the Fifties, he began to gain greater confidence in the results of his work and he set about modernizing the prevailing views at the time on psychoanalysis by using the principles of ethology – the study of the behaviour of animals in their natural environment.

Almost at the same time, a famous animal behaviourist, Konrad Lorenz, who was studying birds, showed that many bird species will readily follow a parent – you’ve probably seen wild goslings following their mother and father – and these findings excited and spurred Bowlby’s resolve to use the principles of ethology to formulate what is now famously known as Attachment Theory.

Although original Attachment Theory was concerned primarily with the relationship between a parent and a child, in subsequent years, the concept of attachment has expanded to include the attachment between a mated pair or two peers.  It is in the latter sense of the definition – the attachment between two peers – that we can start to understand the problems of separation between horses.

Up close and personal  . . .

 By substituting the word “horse” wherever Bowlby used the word “person”, we start to appreciate that attachment in horses means any form of behaviour that causes a horse to retain proximity (ie nearness) to a preferred individual.  And there you have it – the fundamental essence of attachment is the motivation of the horse to always keep close his special companion or pair bond.

In the Eighties, psychologists extended the original Attachment Theory definition to include the idea that the attachment figure is a “secure base” from which to explore the world.  Once again, this new definition has relevance for horses not only in the most obvious example where a mare represents a “secure base” to her young foal from which he can safely explore his environment, but it is also applicable to the special friendship between a pair of older horses.  Being attached to a particular companion who remains vigilant for the safety of both of you whilst you explore and forage, makes biological and evolutionary sense to horses – and as the horse always returns the favour to his pair bond, the attachment between the two is continually reinforced.

So what are the important points about attachment that we need to know which relate to horses:

  • it is an emotional one-to-one relationship based on the affection of the two horses for each other
  • it endures over time
  • no other horse (or person) can substitute for the object of affection
  • certain behaviours are directed only at each other, for example, mutual grooming
  • the horses will deliberately seek each other out
  • clear evidence of attachment exists in the special responses when the two horses are separated and also in the greeting ritual when they are re-united.

Because horses have a need, indeed a predisposition, to find a pair bond, they are especially at risk from separation anxiety problems as biologically they are programmed to form strong attachments.

If you are dog enthusiast the parallels are equally fascinating – with them it is the cohesive pack structure which creates the need for equally strong affectional bonds.  But in dogs, unlike horses, they often show separation anxiety with respect to their owners as well as pack members … Teach Yourself Dog provides the background on canine behaviour and is available under the website Buy button.

There are a number of factors which seem to have an additional bearing on whether a horse is likely to develop separation anxiety problems and at least two of these are important for you to bear in mind:

  • There appears to be evidence of a genetic link with separation anxiety in animals that are bred to be highly-strung and highly reactive to stimuli in their environment. So hot-blooded horses such as Arabs and Thoroughbreds are more at risk than the cold-blooded breeds
  • Previous emotional trauma is linked with future separation anxiety problems. For instance, horses that are traditionally and abruptly weaned from their mothers are in the highest category of future risk.


We’re all the same . . .

 If any animal becomes aroused by anxiety, from rats to dogs to humans to horses, then certain changes occur within the body that can be scientifically measured and monitored.  Interestingly, when scientists have studied anxiety, fear, phobia and panic disorders across the board, they have found that they are all types of fear that are neurochemically related even though they may not be caused or driven by the same motivations.  Studies performed on animals as humble as the Golden Snail have shown that even snails have chemical fear indicators which are similar to those in ourselves and other so-called “higher” mammals like dogs and horses.

Analysing the changes in the chemistry in the body of an anxious animal has provided an invaluable backdrop to our appreciation of how an animal must “feel” when it is suffering from separation anxiety because the results have proven to be similar to the chemical profiles of anxious humans who are able to verbalise their feelings. But fortunately, you do not need to have access to what is going on inside a horse to be able to diagnose separation anxiety, because there are a number of very clear, external, observable signals which we can all learn to identify.  As a horse is about to be removed from its companion, the one left behind displays some or all of these behaviours:

  • increased vocalisation – the horse stands at the gate or the fence and whinnies loudly to his absent friend
  • increased defecation – the horse passes droppings
  • increased vigilance – the horse is too anxious to graze or drink when left alone
  • increased motor activity – the horse paces up and down the fence line

Behaviourists have described separation anxiety as a feeling of abandonment and this seems to best describe why the behaviours listed above occur.  You can understand, for example, if a horse feels abandoned, it is unlikely to feel safe enough to eat.

Finding this interesting?  The Equine Behaviour Qualification dedicates an entire module to the endocrine system – all behaviours begin on the inside so a brief knowledge of the endocrine system and how it controls behaviour will change your understanding of behaviour beyond anything you can imagine. 

All the detail on the distance learning programmes can be found under the  ‘Behaviour Courses Distance Learning’ tab on the website.

Early warnings . . .

One of the most noticeable features owners report in dealing with a horse with separation anxiety is the heightened sense of anticipation in the anxious horse.  The mere appearance of their pair bond’s owner with a head collar in hand, is enough to spark off anxious behaviours in the affected horse.  Behaviourists know therefore, that separation anxiety is a progressive condition which means the intensity of the anxiety gets worse over time.  Whereas before, maybe a companion had to be completely out of sight for the anxiety to be triggered, as the condition persists, smaller and smaller cues of impending separation are enough to trigger extremely intense responses in the frightened horse.

So, for example, where a horse might previously have paced up and down the fence line whilst his pair bond is absent, through persistent separations the horse becomes so aroused that he trots, even canters, continuously whilst he is alone.  Profuse sweating is thus another strong indicator of heightened anxiety in horses suffering from this condition.  (For those of you who are NAC Behaviourists note down the classical conditioning sequence for this progression.)

Teach Yourself Horse Behaviour – based on the knowledge you now have, do you think you would know how to recognize if your horse has a separation anxiety problem when you try to load him into a trailer.  If he refuses to go in – is he just being naughty?

Answer:           First, I would have to be sure whether my horse was attached to any particular equine in the herd.  If he is always turned out alone or in a different group everyday, then he is unlikely to have had the opportunity to form an attachment. However, if your horse is part of a permanent, stable group, then use the knowledge from the Up Close and Personal section to make observations about your horse’s behaviour.  Does he always seem to be with one particular horse?  Do they graze side by side?  Do they choose each other as a preferred partner for mutual grooming?  Do they play together?

If the answer is “Yes” to one or more of these questions, then the horses are probably pair-bonded and attached to one another.

Secondly, I would draw up a list of observable behaviours in my horse when I tried to trailer load him and see how many matched with the list for separation anxiety in the We’re all the same section.  Does he seem to anticipate my every suggestion or cue that he is about to be separated from his friend?  Again, if you find a number of correlations between your horse’s behaviour and the behaviours mentioned in this article, then your horse may have a separation anxiety problem.

Before I could prepare the horse for trailer loading, I would need to teach the horse the concept of separation (without a sense of abandonment) and go through each of the steps outlined below.

Is there a cure?

Prevention is always better than cure, so do not support studs that operate cruel weaning practices which will set up foals for likely separation anxiety problems in the future.  Explicitly, this means not purchasing a youngster from a stud that keeps a mare and foal separated from the rest of the herd, or one that separates a foal from its mother by locking them up in separate, often darkened places.  Not only are these practices inhumane, they have no scientific foundation and store up major problems for the future in the young horse.  In particular, if you wish to own one of the hot-blooded breeds, buy your youngster only from a stud that practices natural herd management.

Solutions …

 If you have a horse which already has a problem, here is a step-by-step guide to eliminating his anxiety when you separate your horse from his pair bond in the field …

(please do not resort to traditional coercive techniques of suddenly and permanently separating the pair – this will only make your horse even more anxious in the future):

Step One.

Enter the field and catch your horse – but immediately release him.  You will be able to assess how serious your horse’s problem is by watching the horse’s response to the cues of separation – the head collar, the lead rope, catching him, beginning to lead him away.

Therefore before you even take the horse out of the field, you need to teach your horse that these cues are are not threats which will cause him to begin to act out the anxiety behaviours.  You will probably have to practice this part over and over again, until your horse remains relaxed when you enter the field.

Step Two.

Lead your horse towards the gate.  If all goes well, lead him through and then immediately turn round and lead him back into the field.  It is important that you do not provoke an anxiety response in your horse as you lead him out.  Once again you are teaching him that the cue of being lead away is not threatening and that he is not about to be “abandoned”.  Importantly, he will slowly start to learn, that he will always be returned to the field.

Step Three.

Your horse is now ready to cope with separation for short periods – often a one minute separation is enough for the horse.  Allow the horses to see each other initially as having visual contact at least, is very important to horses.  As the anxiety starts to disappear, you will be able to move your horse further and further away until he is eventually out of sight of his friend for longer periods of time.

Your goal is to have your horse calmly accept departing from the other.

Using the Bach Flower Remedies.

For those of you who know the remedies you will be familiar with how effective they are in correcting emotional imbalances / abnormal behaviours in animals.  For NAC Animal Behaviourists the remedies are a huge help in that they establish a stable base in the animal you are treating and you’ll find the Bach Animal Counsellor Distance Learning Programme easy as you already have the behaviour knowledge!  If you consult this is really worth considering as a valuable addition to your practice.

In the case of separation anxiety the core remedies would be …

Remedies that cover anxiety and fear – the number one remedy for separation anxiety is Apen.   Mimulus and Cherry plum are usually top of the list to consider as well.  And for those horses who experience repetitive separations from their pair bond (eg. Livery yards that practice deliberate policies for the separation of horse friends for turnout) then use Star of Bethlehem for the trauma.

And depending on the stage of Separation Anxiety …

  • White chestnut if the separation occurs say at weekends and hence causes worry based on the predictable re-occurrence of the fear creating stimulus
  • Sweet chestnut if the horse has reached the limit of his endurance
  • Olive for exhaustion / chronic stress
  • Gentian for each setback or Gorse if he is already in a state of having given up

If you would have chosen remedies such as Chicory, Heather, Holly, Impatiens, Vervain or Vine for Separation Anxiety you are misinterpreting the horse’s behaviour and emotions.


Separation anxiety can be a very serious problem and can pose dangers for both horse and rider.  If you feel your problem has got out of hand, then do not risk injury to yourself or your horse.  Get professional help by asking your vet to recommend a qualified equine behaviourist in your area.

… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …

And for more information … 

All of the following are available on our website under the Buy button:


Equine Behaviour Qualification – Distance Learning Programme.

We’ve converted our residential equine behaviour qualification into a distance learning format and you can now qualify as a NAC Behaviourist through submitting the exercises/case studies set out in the course … no exams!

If you want to really understand your horse, this is the Rolls Royce of behaviour courses and you can be consulting as a NAC Equine Behaviourist in as little as six months, but there are no deadlines so you can take it at your own pace.  Our intention is to get you out in the world helping animals so we make qualifying as simple as possible.

Teach Yourself Horse Volumes 1 & 2 – provides the simple to understand, applied science of Equine Behaviour – simple, compassionate, practical solutions for your horse.

Meeting the Needs of your Horse – all the applied science distilled down into the Natural Animal Centre Triangle of Needs – everything your horse would love you to implement to satisfy his needs.

 Teach Yourself Dog – provides simple to understand & implement applied canine behavioural science – simple, compassionate, practical solutions for your dog

Canine Behaviour Qualification – Distance Learning Programme.

We’ve converted our residential Canine Behaviour Qualification course into a distance learning format and you can now qualify as a NAC Behaviourist through submitting the exercises/case studies set out in the programme … no exams

If you want to really understand dogs, this is the solution … and if you want to consult as a NAC Canine Behaviourist you can qualify in as little as six months, but there are no deadlines so you can take it at your own pace.  Our intention is to get you out in the world helping animals so we make qualifying as simple as possible.

And now you have even more knowledge, so we ask you to … 

  • Share this article with one person who might make a positive change for one animal – send them the link right now :
  • If you’re fascinated look at one the Behaviour Distance Learning Programmes and change the lives of many animals yourself – just choose the ‘Behaviour Courses – Distance Learning’ tab on the home page and there is a wealth of detail including the course prospectus.

… positively influencing the wellbeing of animals worldwide …

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