Puzzle Solving Separation Anxiety in Horses
by Pat Parelli on Aug 10, 2023
By Pat Parelli
One of the great gifts horses give us is to become lateral thinkers. And lateral thinkers are puzzle solvers. Similarly, one of the greatest gifts Grandpa Pits gave me when I'd come to visit him, probably just to keep me from annoying him, were these little wooden puzzles and different things with horseshoes in a chain. You had to figure out how to get them apart or back together, like the precursors to a Rubix cube.
Not that I was ever very good at those puzzles, but it seems like horse-human puzzle solving comes naturally to me. So, my job is to provide inspiration and information, and I try to help people understand how horses feel, think, act, and play.
One of the things that seem to puzzle a lot of horse lovers is this thing called separation anxiety. It can be quite frustrating when a horse whinnies and hollers and makes a big fuss when you take his buddy away. I’m sure almost every horse owner out there has seen or experienced this —you go out on a trail ride, and as you’re heading to the barn, you see the horse you left behind running back and forth, covered in sweat, calling to his buddy and then the horse you’re riding starts hollering back. Another typical scenario happens when it’s wintertime, and your horses have all been turned out together for the last couple of months without much playtime or riding. Springtime comes, and it’s time to start playing again. Suddenly, off you go, physically taking your horse away from his pasture mates, which sets many of the horses off emotionally, and all havoc breaks loose. It’s frustrating and embarrassing and leaves many horse lovers wondering what to do.
Many people would say this type of horse is barn sour or buddy sour, but that’s not true. They're actually buddy-sweet and barn sweet. They call this mate sick in Australia, which is precisely what they are experiencing.
Let’s remember the horse’s instincts. Number one is to be perceptive to dangerous people, places, changes, and things. Number two is to fly from fear. Number three is to be gregarious and always know the herd location. What we must understand is horses operate out of this survival instinct. When horses get separated, they genuinely think they are in a vulnerable position, their sense of self-preservation gets heightened, their adrenaline goes up, and cortisol levels increase. Once all this happens, nothing makes sense to a horse, human, or animal in this scenario. They will hurt themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically just to survive.
So, what can we, as horse lovers and partners, do? The best thing I can tell you to do starts with my favorite letter, “P,” and it’s this concept of preparation. Prior and proper preparation prevents poor performance. So many people don't realize how much like a computer a horse is because they may never do what you want, but they'll always do what you tell them or what you program them to do. Most horses are programmed to be calm and serene when in a pasture with their best friends and all the food, water, and air they could ever want. Everything in their life is going great until you remove their buddy AKA their security blanket.
I try to get people to understand how we can prepare our horses by using a program. In this case, our program is to allow our horses to get used to short periods of separation before asking for a long separation.
For example, what I do with my horses every day after they come in for grain, is a natural separation routine. The horses we will play with, and ride come into the barn for the day while the others go out.
During this daily routine, often, we'll intentionally pick a horse who’s got a buddy and bring him in to play while allowing the buddy to go back out with the herd. We're starting to nip separation anxiety in the bud right off the bat.
Rather than making abrupt changes, think about planning and playing in preparation for the separation. Depending on how long you've been practicing the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Program, here are some ideas of things to try:
Play with both horses at one time. You can have your spouse, best friend, or another student play with one horse while you play with the other horse on the ground. Get them used to having different proximity, being closer together, farther apart, one person at one end of the arena, another at the other. Focuses on playing until, no matter what you're doing, the horses concentrate on you. Remember the old Biblical saying, idle hooves are the devil's workshop, pun intended. To keep their hooves and minds from becoming idle, we get them moving and thinking about us and focus their minds and emotions on the task at hand.
Start with the Seven Games. Say to your horse, you’ve got to go backward and sideways and go out on circles and change directions—we've got things to do, places to go, and obstacles. All of these tasks and games are things that, as an individual, the horse can concentrate on and absorb.
Be sure the other humans are playing the same way with the second horse. Yes, they're going to whinny, and they'll still be worried at first. But these are the kind of activities that, when made into a program, can help horses understand to use the same instincts of bonding, obedience, and exuberance with a human partner, not just with their horse herd mates.
And here’s the secret—winning the games. You win their respect, heart, mind, and emotions. You win everything. This is when your horse can finally realize that safety is found with humans, not just with their herd mates. That's a big concept to grasp, and winning the Seven Games is the big secret.
Teach your horses to stand on a high tie as you develop positive patterns of separation. A second routine that might help your horses overcome separation anxiety is bringing your horses in every day to stand tied. This is a pattern to develop every day, not just the days you're going to play with them. Have a high tie somewhere safe— a cable or a rope tied between trees, for example— and allow your horses to experience standing tied for various amounts of time. We do this with my horses for up to two or three hours daily. It’s part of their routine, and different horses get taken off the high ties at varying times while one goes out to play and others stay behind.
You might not want to take your horse too far away if you're just starting. Always remember retreat and approach work better than approach and retreat. Play with the horse close by at first, so it doesn’t create a big bother in either the horse you’re playing with or the horses left behind. Then take the horse you're playing with farther away, and just about the moment the one on the line starts to get bothered, come back. Then go the other direction and stay out there a little further away for a little longer. Think in terms of proximity. Maybe you're 50 feet away before he starts to get bothered, then come on back and then go 60 feet in the other direction, then come on back and then maybe go 30 feet another way, and so on. Then just start moving around more and more.
Remember, this is not something you do all in one session. It usually takes four to seven sessions in a row for things to sink in and for horses to re-program new patterns. Horses learn faster than humans. It usually takes us 21 sessions to break any habit or create a new one.
Remember, the key is to create new patterns using prior and proper preparation. Understand your horse’s nature first and then play with that nature to develop partnership behavior as you help your horse grow and overcome what I call mate sick.