Monday, 16 February 2015

Separation Anxiety

Chesney has always been a horse that over reacts (in my opinion) to his friend being taken out of the field.  He has been like this since he was little and he is the same, if not worse, now he is 20 years old.  He will trot or canter up and down the fence line from the moment I leave until I return, this is true if I go for 20 minutes or an hour and a half.  I rarely ride for longer than this now as I worry for Chesney's safety.   When I return he is generally pouring sweat and at this time of year because of the wet ground he is plastered in mud up his legs, on his tummy and everywhere else it can get.  Luckily he doesn't scream or neigh much which some horses do, if he did I don't think my rides on Basil would be very easy!  When I ride or lunge in the arena he walks or trots up and down the side fence - I always put some hay for him to eat and sometimes he does and sometimes he ignores it!

 He was the same with my previous horse and this is really why we got Fidget, so he had a constant companion.  However, it seems to make little difference.  This experience with Chesney has made me interested in the theory of Separation Anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?
The term has been taken from child psychology where a child experiences fear and panic when separated from parents or other attached individuals.  It has been diagnosed in dogs that bark, pace, chew, lose their appetite and display hyperactivity and destructive pawing.  Horses often display similar behaviours, they run up and down, call and stop grazing.

What causes some horses to suffer?
It is not unusual for a herd animal to exhibit a certain amount of distress when separated from his friends as this is where he feels safe.  See my blog about Horse Psychology for more on this.  Some articles I have read talk about the 'dominant gelding' acting as a stallion would in the wild.  This would mean that if part of his herd is taken away he would be distressed and exhibit similar behaviours to Chesney.  However, Chesney is not the dominant one in the field - Basil is!

Some other current thinking suggests that some horses are predisposed to making stronger attachments which make them more likely to become distressed when separated.  However, there is no research to support this theory.

Another idea I have read about suggests early or traumatic weaning could be a cause.  Chesney had a fairly traumatic weaning (from what I understand).  When separated from his mother he was put in a stable, became distressed reared and caught his leg between the metal bars.  He made a real mess of his leg so they had to put him back with his mum to go to the vet for treatment.  He then came to us age 10 months - which I now think was still too young, but is fairly normal.  

Mother/Baby Bonding
Obviously, each foal is different and an individual, some will be more affected by separation than others!

Protection: A foal becomes attached to his mother so that he then knows who to be close to when danger threatens.  The mare needs to learn who to protect.  The first hour after a foal is born the mother spends time sniffing, nickering and licking the foal and the foal does the same - they are learning to attach to each other. 
Proximity: In the early days a mare and foal stay close together.  In the wild foals have been seen to stay close to the mare for up to 2 years.  Suggesting that weaning at anything less than this (and 6 months is normal) will cause a massive breakdown in the attachment process - placing the foal at a huge risk of growing up psychologically maladjusted. 
Separation: The mother is the secure base from which the foal explores the world.  In human research, secure babies do not become stressed if separated briefly and will continue to play, apparently believing their mothers would return.  Insecure babies  become distressed.  This suggests that if foals are separated too early they will grow up feeling insecure, this can affect normal development and have long-term adverse consequences.  This means that the 'normal' process of weaning- sudden and total separation- can cause permanent psychological damage.
These ideas have developed from human research by psychologists including John Bowlby.

Chesney would always hack out alone, but if he was left behind he became stressed.  Of course now he is unable to be ridden.   I have tried so many different ideas with Chesney over the years but none have worked - he has a deep seated fear when his 'special friend' is taken away. Nevertheless they work with many horses, so here are some suggestions for you to try if you have a horse suffering .....

  • Take it slowly.  It may take weeks or months! 
  • Firstly just try to take the horse away from his friend by a few feet (still in sight) - and reward with a treat and kind word. 
  • When he is happy with this gradually increase the distance but remain in sight. 
  • When he remains calm in this situation try to bring your horse just out of the field for food.  Or if it is the horse left in the field that is the problem give him food and a cuddle!  
  • The next step will be to take him out of sight.  Obviously if the problem horse is the one in the field you will need a helper!  Take the horse just out of sight long enough to give a treat and a kind word.  Then return the horse to the field with his friend. 
  • Once the horse is calm with this very short 'out of sight' moment you can gradually increase the time.  GRADUALLY. 
  • The key is for the horse to keep calm so don't try to extend the time too much too quickly. 
  • Ideally you will do this a bit each day and then it should improve more quickly than if you can only do this once a week. 
  • Good Luck.

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Until next time!

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