You had a dream of keeping your horses at home and riding off into the sunset. There’s just one problem. Your trusty steed turns into a screaming bundle of nerves when you try to ride her away from the other horses. You feel like you don’t really have control of her and you’re losing your confidence.
This isn’t a dream. It’s a nightmare!
First, it’s important to understand what’s causing this behaviour. Horses are herd animals. For them, they are vulnerable when they are separated from the herd. Vulnerable as in possibly becoming dinner for some predator that they just know is out there waiting to pounce on them!
If you’ve every been lost – or lost sight of your child – in an unfamiliar place where you don’t no anyone, you probably left alone, scared and vulnerable. Maybe even a bit panicky.
That’s how your horse feels when she’s separated from her herd. It’s called Separation Anxiety.
You can help your horse to be comfortable with being socially isolated from other horses by using a systematic approach that gradually expands your horse’s comfort zone while reinforcing positive association with being alone without sending her into a panic.
Behaviours that get reinforced get stronger.
If you’re horse feels anxious out every time she leaves her herd then that’s the behaviour that is being reinforced. Leaving her herd is always a negative and stressful experience.
Here are my 4 steps for helping your buddy sour horse be calm when she’s with you.
Step 1 – Figure out how far from her buddies your horse can be while remaining calm and comfortable. You’ve identified her comfort zone. That may be just on the other side of the paddock fence. So be it. That’s where you start.
Step 2 – Walk her a few feet away from her comfort zone paying careful attention to see when her anxiety starts. At the earliest sign of tension, take her back to her comfort zone until she settles down.
Step 3 – Do things she enjoys while you’re working with her. Things that feel good like grooming, scratching her favourite spots, giving her a special treat like carrots or apples. Try feeding her morning and evening grain away from the other horses – just outside that comfort zone. If she won’t eat, you’ve gone too far beyond her comfort zone – take her back. If she is a bit stressed, but will eat you’re in the right place.
Step 4 – When your horse stays calm on the other side of the paddock fence, walk her around the perimeter of the paddock. But, only if it’s a safe area without any potential hazards to you or her. Walk her down your driveway – if it’s not too far from the paddock.
Remember your purpose is to give her good experiences while she’s with you and away from her buddies. So take things slowly and gradually expand the area you take her.
Consistency and regular repetition affect the length of time it takes to effect a positive change. So, work with your horse as often as you can. Keep the sessions short – a few good minutes repeated a couple of times a day or 3 times a week are much more beneficial than an hour once a week.
Remember that your horse is suffering from genuine stress and anxiety. She does not enjoy or want to feel this way any more than you do.
When you understand your horse’s perspective and can help her have good experiences when she’s with you by using this systematic training method, she will feel more comfortable and safe in your presence. And in the end, you and she will have a much stronger bond.