Seeking Solutions to Separation Anxiety

When teaching young horses to accept separation from their pasturemates, it might seem like a good idea to train them in pairs first for a while before training them alone. However, new equitation science research suggests that pairing them up might just delay the anxiety of separation and, in the end, the results of this method don't differ much from those of immediate individual separation.

separation anxiety

A researcher watches a mare eat after she’s been separated from the herd. The band around the horse barrels is a device for measuring heart rates.

Elke Hartmann, PhD, researcher in the department of animal environment and health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, presented her team's research on the topic at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala on Aug. 2. She and her colleagues divided yearling and 2-year-old Warmblood mares into two groups for a monthlong test period of social separation methods. The test comprised three successive steps, with each step representing greater distance away from the herd. Before moving on to a new step, the horses had to succeed in the previous one (by showing calm feeding patterns).

Researchers separated the horses in one group from their pasture herd for daily individual training sessions. In the other group, investigators separated the animals in pairs first, but when these paired horses were feeding calmly at the final testing area, they repeated the training steps with each horse individually. Hartmann and her colleagues studied how long it took for the horses to adjust to each of the three stages of the experiment. They also regularly monitored the horses' heart rates as a measure of anxiety.

The researchers had expected the paired horses to accept herd separation faster and with less stress, but their results showed that this was only true so long as the pair stayed together, according to Hartmann. While still in pairs, horses' heart rates were much lower than when they were separated from each other later, she said. These animals also quickly advanced through the three steps. However, the horses started over again individually, their results (heart rate and number of sessions needed to succeed in each training step) were very similar to those of the mares that had been individually separated from the beginning.

"It appeared that the (paired) horses were having to relearn being in the test situation alone when switching to the individual training," Hartmann said. "Our results suggest that from a practical point of view, it may not be efficient to train naive (previously untrained) young horses to tolerate social separation initially with a familiar companion."

However, it’s possible that results could be improved if the paired companion is an older horse who has already had significant experience in being separated, Hartmann added, noting that further research will address this question.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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