Separation Anxiety In Horses
By Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB • Dec 22, 2013 • Article #10090
Q. We have two riding mares and an older gelding that are together, either in the pasture or up in the shed, almost all of the time. We use the two mares just for occasional weekend pleasure riding. The gelding is aged and has a stifle problem. He is just hanging out here eating grass.
Here's the problem. Whenever we take our mares out of the pasture to ride or for any other reason, the gelding simply goes nuts. He just runs up and down the fence, back and forth in front of the gate, or tears around the shed, calling and screaming until the others are back. We can hardly get them through the gate he's so upset. Even after we get back, it takes him about an hour to settle down. He runs the mares all over and won't let them out of his sight. We have tried putting him up in a stall while we're out, and he just goes crazy. He won't eat hay or grain or relax the whole time we're away. We have tried disciplining him, but that does nothing to quiet him down. We have tried leaving one mare with him, and that doesn't seem to help. He's agitated until the other one is back. All the carrying on makes him really lame for a week or so. Sometimes he gets himself so worked up that we're afraid he'll colic or run through the fence.
I was wondering if this might be a mental condition like the one you hear about in dogs. My sister had a dog that went nuts like this, barking and running around and tearing up the apartment whenever she left it at home alone. Their veterinarian called it "separation anxiety," and recommended behavior modification procedures. They tried it, but it didn't work so well because of their hectic schedules. They ended up giving the dog to a home where someone was there all the time.
My sister recently gave me an article saying that now there is a medication available to treat dogs with separation anxiety. What exactly is separation anxiety in dogs? Do you think our gelding has the same thing as dogs? Are there any behavior modification programs or medications that you think would help? Also, we were wondering if you thought we should try taking the mares away from the gelding for more than just a few hours to see if he'll get over it. How long would you think it might take to know if he'll ever settle down? What we have been doing is getting the mares back as soon as possible so he doesn't hurt himself, two to three hours at most. What would happen if we took him somewhere else?
A. All of your questions are great, and you are not alone in asking about separation anxiety in horses. So let's take a look at your questions one at a time.
What exactly is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety disorder is indeed the term used in dogs that have frantic behavior when they are left home alone. The term comes straight from child psychology in which a child or adolescent experiences extraordinary fear or depression, even panic, when separated from home, parents, or other attached individuals. To fit the diagnosis of disorder, the child's distress must be clinically significant (severe and beyond that which is normally expected for a certain developmental level), it must continue for a period of longer than a month, and it must significantly impair social or occupational function. The afflicted youngster or adolescent expresses fear for their own safety, for the safety and return of the attached person, or for the safety of their home or belongings from which they are separated.
In dogs that suffer from separation anxiety disorder, there is barking, hyperactivity, pacing, destructive pawing and chewing, hypersalivation, house soiling, and sometimes loss of appetite. We can only make educated guesses about what is going through the mind of the dog or why it is frantic. The best guess is that the dog is fearful rather than simply excited; the frantic and destructive behavior is often directed toward the door through which the owner left and might return. The interpretation is that the dog in many instances has become very attached to and dependent upon one or more people. After all, for dogs in apartments, all exercise, feeding, and stimulating events happen when the people are home, and nothing happens when people are away. A common mistake of owners is to conclude that the dog is spiteful, that he is destroying property to get back at the owners for leaving him alone. They often punish the dog when they return to find the furniture and carpets destroyed. In general the dog behavior experts advise that punishment only makes things worse for the dog.
Separation anxiety disorder is one of the most common reasons owners seek the professional advice of small animal veterinary behaviorists. It is considered a disorder because it can become quite severe, and because it represents quite strong attachment of the dog to people, as opposed to a member of their own species. And there are a variety of environmental changes, behavior modification, and pharmacologic aids that veterinary behaviorists recommend to treat the disorder. Sometimes the dog's behavior can improve significantly. A really good summary article on this behavioral disorder in dogs was written by Dr. Barbara Simpson of The Veterinary Behavior Clinic, Southern Pines, N.C. It can be found in the veterinary journal The Compendium on Continuing Education Vol. 22 (no. 4) April, 2000.
Are horses like dogs?
Back to horses, and specifically to your gelding. Sounds very similar to the behavior of your sister's dog, doesn't it? The gelding seems especially attached to his herd mates, gets distressed when they leave, and eventually settles down when they return. So, yes, many equine behaviorists would call this separation distress or separation anxiety. I don't think many would call it a disorder, because in most cases the frantic behavior can be explained in terms of normal horse herd behavior.
A certain amount of distress is a normal part of life in animals that have social attachments or home territory. Another distinction between horses and dogs in relation to separation problems is that the horse usually is upset by separation or isolation from horses, not from people. It's true that sometimes a horse can be distracted or calmed by the presence of a human, but you almost never see a horse that is initially set off by separation from a human. So, most equine behavior experts would call the behavior you describe in your gelding as separation distress or separation anxiety, but not a disorder. Most would probably consider it a normal behavioral response of a herd animal.
In fact, in the case of your gelding, it sounds like he might be showing a fairly common form of normal equine separation distress. Your gelding, living with two mares, has taken over the natural role of protector of the mares, or the "harem," as he surely would if he were an intact stallion. Under domestic conditions, where there is rarely a stallion there to do the job, a gelding often will take on the role. Even among geldings which have been castrated for a long time, and even if castrated before sexual maturity, a fairly large percentage exhibit stallion-like herd formation and maintenance behaviors under conditions such as you describe. And as severe as his distress seems, the behavior you describe is probably within the range of normal behavior for a stallion whose mares were taken away (if you could safely get them out of the pasture more than once).
Other common forms of equine separation distress that fall into the normal versus disorder category are mare and foal separation and separation of closely bonded pairs of mares.
What might help?
Depending on the form and severity of the problem, there are some general recommendations to consider. Some of them you already have tried. One is leaving a companion behind, one of the mares. That didn't work. Another is to take the horse out of the pasture and reward him with feed, as you did when you put him in a stall. You tried that, and it didn't work either. With horses such as your old gelding, it might be tough to improve the situation with behavior modification or medication. Stallion-like behavior in geldings under pasture conditions sometimes can be quite resistant to training, even with medicinal aids. In many cases, a permanent change in management and housing arrangements is the only way to go.
For example, many geldings with residual stallion-like behavior and related separation anxiety would settle down within less than a day or two if they were taken to a place where they were the only horse or where they were with other geldings instead of with mares. You asked how long it might take for him to settle down if you were to just keep the mares away from him. Most geldings will settle down within a couple days after the mares are taken away, but probably even faster if the gelding is taken to a new location. Away means miles away, where he can't see, hear, or smell the mares.
For the form of separation distress in which two mares who are closely bonded are distressed each time you take one away, all of the methods we described--including behavior modification and medication--are much more likely to help. Most mares which have a special buddy will readily bond to a substitute, or at least they are somewhat calmed by having another companion.
There are no medications specifically developed for alleviating separation distress in horses. Some of the medications used to calm horses, such as oral progesterone, l-tryptophan supplementation, or anxiolytics, can be helpful. But in most cases, changing the social environment and management are almost always more useful approaches.
How about prevention?
As horse owners, we probably should think more about what predisposes certain horses to this problem and what can be done to prevent it. Current thinking is that, as with all good and bad temperaments and behavior, some horses might be genetically predisposed to social separation or isolation. They simply could be more likely to make strong attachments and become more distressed by separation. There is no research to support the notion, but we often wonder how the horse's early experience and management affect this tendency.
One goal in prevention is to systematically expose young horses to separation from pasture mates, in other words, get them used to the comings and goings of herd mates in an organized gradual way while they are young, and throughout life. If a particular young horse seems stressed by separation, it can be exposed to gradually increasing distances of separation, avoiding any explosive panic events that might set the horse up for future panic.
We all have heard of individual horses which had a traumatic early separation or weaning experience, and ever since have had difficulties. In such instances, we always wonder whether it was the horse's basic nature that caused the initial distress response to separation, or did the initial stressful separation experience set the animal up to be a lifelong separation problem?
To be most effective, behavior modification and medication programs for separation distress should be tailored specifically to each case. If medications are to be included, your veterinarian should monitor the treatment and health of your horse. There are a growing number of equine veterinarians and behavior specialists who can help with a specific program. These can be found through The Animal Behavior Society or the American Veterinary Medical Association.