Horses and ponies form friendship bonds that are much stronger than the ones we have with our mates, and these bonds are essential in order for them to feel safe and secure.
In light of this, it will come as no surprise to learn that should the vast majority of horses become separated from their friends, even for a short time, they may well experience feelings of fear, anxiety and stress – a form of emotional upset known as separation anxiety.
For some horses this anxiety can be triggered simply by a change in routine.
If your horse lives out all summer, for example, but comes in, away from his friends, in the winter he might find this upsetting. As a result, you’ll see changes – often negative – in his behaviour. While the exact causes of extreme separation anxiety are many and varied,
to help your horse cope simple management techniques must be put in place.
Read on for my three-step plan.
Step 1: Find your starting point
The key to overcoming your horse’s anxiety is to select the right area in which to work. Aim to set up a scenario where your horse is listening to you, being respectful and obedient, and finding as much comfort from your company as he does from his friends.
The best place to start this training is usually closer to his companions than you might think. Your first training session may take place just outside your horse’s field gate, for instance, well within sight of his friends and before his adrenaline levels become so high he’s difficult or dangerous to work with.
Use groundwork exercises in this area to get control of your horse’s feet, and once he’s listening and behaving well, give him something positive, like a feed or a groom, before putting him back in the field.
Step 2: Boost his confidence
Repeat step one as often as possible, slowly taking him further from his friends. The more you can get your horse to listen to you, the more you’re building your bond, reinforcing his obedience and distracting him from his friends. Move on to riding, at first within eye shot of his friends, working on your control of his movements, with exercises like turn on the forehand.
Don’t worry if you don’t have an arena. You could work in a paddock or ride around the yard if the footing is safe – you don’t have to move out of walk. This technique works well because you are building your horse’s bravery about being independent from the group, but you are also making ‘home’ a place of work too, so being near friends does not always mean having an easy time!
An important tip is not to put him away until his adrenaline is down and he is really relaxed. This gives him the chance to realise he can relax independently from the group, and makes sure the day’s learning sinks in.
Step 3: Build his independence
When riding with other horses, continue to encourage him to listen to you. Start by simply asking for more of his mind on you when out hacking in company. Even if he’s following another horse, he can walk slightly to the inside so he’s walking in his own track, and you can keep practising his obedience to your aids by giving him things to do like changes of pace or circles round puddles, gradually increasing the distance you can take from the group for these little tasks. If his adrenaline does become raised, a small circle will help keep you safe until he settles.
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