Separation anxiety: training your horse to be on their own

Not sure how to prepare your horse to be left on their own or have a horse with separation anxiety? Check out our top tips.

Not sure how to prepare your horse to be left on their own or have a horse with separation anxiety? Check out our top tips.

Training any horse to be left on their own successfully is a very gradual process, requiring time and patience, and it’s especially important to allow a new horse or pony to settle into their unfamiliar environment before starting to work on getting them used to their friend going away. Moving to a new home can be a very stressful experience for any horse, regardless of their age and previous experience. 

Even horses who have learnt to be left alone in a previous home or at one of our centres can feel very insecure in a new environment to begin with and this will affect how they cope with being left alone. We recommend that at the very minimum you allow at least a full week for a new arrival to settle and ideally much longer – bear in mind that horses can take six months to a year to fully settle in a new home. 

Remember that horses are herd animals – being on their own, whether they’re the one being taken away or the one being left behind, can be very frightening for them if they’re not given the chance to get used to it gradually. However, with time, patience and a systematic approach, most horses can learn to be comfortable being left on their own for short periods of time. 

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Training a horse to be left in the stable or field 

We recommend breaking the process of being left on their own down into small, manageable steps. Ideally you should be working well within your horse’s comfort zone meaning that their behaviour when left by the other horse does not change. We’ll call the horse being left in the stable or field a companion for this section of the article. 

Stressed, panicky horses simply can’t learn what you want them to and may injure themselves or those around them. Although it may seem very time-consuming to break the process down into small steps, the chances of a successful outcome are much higher if they remain calm, and it will be far less stressful for all involved. It is important to monitor the behaviour of both the horse being left and the horse leaving, to ensure neither becomes stressed or displays behaviours that could lead to injury of themselves or the handler. It is also worth noting that, in some cases, the companion may become so distraught at being left for even a small amount of time that the safest option for all involved is to get a companion to stay with them in the field and/or stable. For more information on finding a suitable companion, see our Rehoming guidance

It’s important to note that, throughout this process, you want to make sure that both horses remain calm. Once they become stressed, they will start forming a negative emotional association around being apart, which will risk setting your training back. It is therefore important to progress in small steps. If one of the horses starts becoming worried, go back to a distance they are both comfortable with and start building up from there again.  

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The first step in the process of teaching your companion to be left alone might be as small as walking up to the horse you ultimately want to take away, putting their headcollar on and then taking it off again and walking away. Signs to watch out for throughout the training process that may indicate that the companion is stressed include alert posture, agitated behaviour such as walking or trotting around, or calling to their friend. 

Steps you could break the training process down into might be: 

  • Catching the horse you want to take away, putting their headcollar on and then removing it again and walking away 
  • Catching your horse, walking them across the paddock a short distance and letting them go again 
  • Walking your horse to the gate and letting them go again 
  • Taking your horse out of the gate and then putting them back in again straight away 
  • Taking your horse out of the gate, waiting a short while and putting them back in again 
  • Walking your horse a very short distance away outside the gate and then putting them back 
  • Walking your horse a short distance away outside the gate, waiting a minute and then putting them back 
  • Repeating the previous step, gradually increasing EITHER the time spent waiting OR the distance you take the friend away, but not both at the same time.  

Ideally you will repeat the last step many times, very gradually increasing either the time spent away or the distance until you can take your horse out of sight and your companion is completely comfortable being left. You can then gradually increase the time your horse spends out of sight of their companion until you have built up to the amount of time that you would like them to be comfortable being left alone for. For example, if you would normally take your horse out hacking for an hour, you want your companion to be secure being alone for an hour before you take your horse out for a hack. 

It can be well worth repeating each step multiple times to ensure that your companion really is OK with that point in the process before moving on to the next stage. If they start to get worried, you may need to go several steps backwards to get them re-established before gradually moving forwards again. You can also pair the separation with something positive, so for example when you take your horse out put a treat ball or lick in for the companion. 

If your companion really struggles with learning to be left on their own, you may find that it helps to switch the horses’ roles at the start of the process – so your companion first learns to be taken away from their friend. Once they’ve learned to be on their own by being taken away (rather than being left) and are comfortable with that, you can switch the roles again and start working on taking away their friend. Another strategy that can really help some horses is to bring them in at the same time as the one you want to take away, letting them stand in for a couple of minutes and then turning your companion horse back out. Some horses seem to find it easier to be put out in an empty paddock than to watch their friend being taken away. 

It can also be well worth incorporating being left alone briefly into your companion’s daily routine, for example by turning them out first, waiting a few minutes and then putting their friend out. The length of time could be gradually built up, until eventually you might turn the companion out, take your other horse out for a ride and then turn them out too. 

Other things that may help your companion learn that being on their own is OK include: 

  • Offering them plenty of hay and/or a treat ball to help keep them occupied whilst their friend is away 
  • Making sure they are completely used to their environment – now is not the time for field changes 
  • If they’re used to being stabled as part of their routine, you could try teaching your companion to be left on their own in the stable. In this case, you could consider stable mirrors (making sure they’re horse-safe) and/or having a radio on low in the background with calming music 
  • Keeping your companion used to being left on their own routinely once they’ve learned how in the first place – if you stop riding out over the winter, for instance, you will likely need to gradually reintroduce your companion to being left on their own again when you want to start riding out again in the spring, unless you take other steps to maintain the routine throughout that time. 

All horses are individuals, and some may comfortably move through the process much faster than others. But if you expect the training to be a slow, gradual process and work accordingly, giving your companion as much time as they need, you give them a much better chance of success. We know this sounds very time-consuming but it really is time well spent, greatly reduces the stress for all involved and significantly increases the likelihood of successfully training your companion to be left on their own. It is also important to remember that horses are herd animals and they still have hard wired fear responses when they are socially isolated. If a horse is left on their own in a field they should have other horses in adjacent fields. Leaving a horse in a field where they can’t see other horses is generally not recommended. 

Training the horse being led or ridden away 

Many of the steps will be similar to those above, and it is important to take things slowly. Taking a horse away from an area they feel safe in or away from their herd mates is a big ask, and it is essential to build a trusting relationship with the horse you are asking to come with you. However, it is generally easier for the horse being taken away with a human for guidance than it is to leave a horse alone. 

Key considerations: 

  • Build up the distance you are asking your horse to go away from other horses gradually, using a similar method to that above. 
  • Use food rewards to positively reinforce that coming with you is the correct behaviour; this also helps to keep their focus on you. 
  • If your horse starts to display signs of separation anxiety or tension, return them to their safe space. Trying to force them to continue on their own will not help and will set back your training.  
  • It is advisable to wear suitable personal protective equipment such as an up-to-standard riding hat and gloves in case the horse displays aversive behaviours such as rearing or trying to bolt back towards the other horses or ‘home’.  
  • If you are riding, maybe go on a familiar route with another horse a couple of times before asking them to go alone. Remember to build up the distance slowly if your horse is nervous. 
  • At all times, act to keep both you and your horse safe. If you or your horse starts to get tense or anxious and this is not resolving, end the training session.  

If you need extra support with separating your horses or getting horses used to being led or ridden alone, it may be worth reaching out to an equine behaviour professional who can work with your specific circumstances.  

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