Friends are a good thing for a horse to have.
Who wouldn't want a partner for swatting flies head-to-tail in the field, a fellow scratcher for that itchy spot just behind the withers and a cohort in raising mealtime rackets? And from an owner's point of view, it's comforting to know that your horses aren't lonely when you're not around.
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But firm friendships between stable- and herdmates can have a downside. When two horses become so attached that any form of separation leads to stress verging on panic, the virtues of companionship are outweighed by the complications it brings. Trail riding or training just one of the pair becomes difficult, if not impossible. Showing can be pointless and embarrassing when the horse in the ring screams incessantly for his partner back in the trailer. In the worst cases, a bonded pair cannot be out of sight of each other without one or both of the buddies becoming unruly and even dangerously unmanageable in their efforts to be reunited.
Separation anxiety is rooted in the lifestyle of wild horses, whose social attachments are literally a matter of life and death. But domesticated horses can form bonds—sometimes with horses they've just met—that exceed the depth and strength of those in nature. Breaking these obsessive friendships is essential if the two parties are to be reliable, manageable, productive horses, but making the separation can be quite a challenge. You'll need patience, creativity and the capacity to be the "bad guy" to break up the duo, but you'll be well rewarded when you can finally go about your daily caretaking and enjoy outings without having them sabotaged by the inseparable pair.
The Ties that Bind
Equine bonds in the natural state are strong but far from inalterable. In the wild, horses live in either harems or bachelor bands. Each harem is composed of several mature mares (often three or four, but sometimes as many as 12) and their young, protected by a mature stallion. When fillies reach maturity, they either leave on their own and move into different harems or are "stolen" by other mature stallions. When colts reach maturity and are driven out of the harem by their sires, they join bachelor bands made up of other young males and older stallions who have lost their harems.
Harems and bands offer their members companionship, access to critical resources and, most important, protection from predators. The lead stallion vigilantly watches over his harem as they graze, drink and sleep. He alerts his harem to threats, often with a loud whinny. He fights to drive other stallions away from his harem, and he herds his mares and offspring away from predators or other threats. The alpha mare often leads the harem to watering holes and grazing ground and away from other groups to prevent intermixing. Bachelor bands are not as well organized, but they still offer member stallions protection from predators as certain members act as sentinels while the others graze or rest. Individuals separated from their harems or bands are easy targets for predators.
Wild horses know the importance of sticking with the group at all costs, and even after thousands of years under human management, domesticated horses have retained this valuable lesson. However, the bonds between individual horses within free-roaming bands and harems aren't necessarily tight, particularly when judged by human social values. Daughters and sons leave their mothers every year with nary a whinny or backward glance by either party. If a bachelor stallion steals a mare from a harem, she follows willingly, and her former harem mates don't pine for her. Bachelor bands are particularly unstable, with members constantly coming and going with little stress or strife. To the wild horse, companionship is crucial to survival, but the specific companions are irrelevant.
Why, then, do some domestic horses form implacably tight bonds with select associates? The personalities of the horses involved, their social setup and the level of stress in their lives all come into play, but there is no standard profile of the buddy-bound horse. The most common separation-anxiety situation I see occurs between two horses who have had only each other as company for many, many years. That said, I've seen lifelong stablemates who could care less when separated from each other. Some horses aren't particular about their attachments and bond with any horses stabled next to them in a matter of hours. In general, highly strung, emotionally needy horses are more prone to forming unhealthy attachments, but very secure horses can form immediate and tight bonds when they're in sufficiently stressful situations.
Two domestic horses who spend the majority of their days in close proximity to each other are quite likely to bond deeply. My own two horses, for example, were never particularly attached to each other until I moved across the country with them. After two 14-hour trailer rides and a new home, they suddenly can't live apart. Turned-out horses may form a single large herd or break down into small, distinct groups. A horse can become agitated when asked to leave his group rather than any particular individual in it. Horses who are kept in small, adjacent paddocks or confined in stalls form bonds to the horses next to or across the aisle from them.
The signs of separation anxiety are unmistakable. Separated buddies scream for each other, pace pasture fences or spin in circles in their stalls. Someone who doesn't know the social history may even think the anxious horse is colicking. Turned-out horses with attachment problems may be hard to catch and reluctant to leave their herds or pals once they are collared. Sometimes only one of the bonded pair gets worked up, but often both parties become agitated when they lose sight of each other. The most telling sign of unhealthy attachments is how the horses act when reunited: If they immediately settle down, you know the separation was the cause.
Before the Break
One approach to managing separation anxiety is to leave the buddy-bound horses together forever. This strategy works only if you never want to ride or compete just one of the two and if you can be sure you'll never have to face an emergency situation when only one horse must be transported elsewhere.
A far more practical solution is to retrain the two for some emotional independence. The widespread notion that deeply bonded pairs of horses cannot be separated without risking severe emotional trauma is just not true. Breaking the bond is hard and you'll feel like an ogre doing it, but the horses won't be harmed. I've yet to meet two horses who couldn't be separated and function as happy individuals.
Separations usually have to be abrupt and unwavering to be effective. The soft and slow approach of separating the horses for increasing amounts of time each day simply prolongs the turmoil and perpetuates the anxiety. But before making a swift split, you need to analyze the cause of the problem and make appropriate preparation for the ultimate separation.
If the horses appear to have bonded because of stress, deal with the source of the stress first. When their lives are in turmoil, they need each other. For instance, when two horses who have bonded during an abusive situation come into Lone Star Equine Rescue, the organization I run, we wait until they are healthy and more trusting of people before splitting them up. In a situation where the unfamiliarity of travel and competition turns your occasional show horses into inseparable screamers, stress reduction might simply be more frequent outings, so the show experience loses its fearfulness.
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Once you've eliminated underlying stressors that contribute to unhealthy bonding, evaluate the horses' ground manners. Bonded pairs that include young, green or otherwise unruly individuals need some basic education to teach the horses to focus on and obey you above all other distractions. During these sessions, I take one horse at a time to an area where he can still see and hear the other and work on leading, backing and responding to my commands. I have them perform more complicated ground exercises, such as walking through pole mazes, to command their attention. If you're into round-pen training, you might try a bit of that.
Lots of praise and possibly food rewards go a long way to making the horse realize that I'm a worthy companion. Be patient and systematic; establishing ground manners may take 10 or more sessions.
Making the Split
Once the horse focuses on me and is safe to handle while on his own but still in the vicinity of his pal, you can make the split. The best option is to remove one horse from the property for at least two weeks. The back-and-forth whinnying of two horses within earshot of each other can drive everyone nuts. The next best solution is to house the horses on opposite ends of your property, where they aren't going to see or be in contact with each other. Put another horse nearby each of the separated pair for companionship and distraction, and make the break at dinnertime when they will be focused on eating.
The horses are quite likely to scream for each other, pace and generally carry on, which will make you feel awful. Resist the urge to put the pair back together unless one is at risk of injuring himself in his frenzy. Two hours seems like forever when you're watching a horse pining for his buddy, but in confirmed cases be prepared for the anguish to go on for two or three days. Cut out the grain meals, and keep hay in front of separated horses at all times as both a distraction and an antidote to stress-induced digestive troubles. A horse who stops his racket to eat and drink has his priorities straight and will most likely become fully adjusted to the change within a week.
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If a separated horse seems to be at risk of becoming ill because he's not eating or drinking, he's losing weight or he's fretting to the point of exhaustion, ask your veterinarian about sedation. Calming drugs can cause unwanted physiological effects, and your veterinarian is the one to decide if and how such medications should be used.
Maintaining the Change
Eventually, all separated horses settle down. At that point, turn your attentions to preventing new unhealthy reattachments. If possible, change stabled horses' neighbors frequently, which might mean playing musical stalls every three or four days. For field-kept horses, frequent changes in herd members can be very disruptive to the overall hierarchy, so put newly separated turned-out horses in small paddocks with one or two rotating companions to make new mini-herds every few days.
Once the separated pair appears to have gotten over each other, you can try putting them back in same area, but be very, very watchful for signs that they are reattaching. When you intervene quickly to nip a returning obsession in the bud, separation won't cause the same extended turmoil as the original division did. If your herd is small and there's no way to keep the two apart for the long term, make it a point to ride the bonded pair separately every day and to go off the property with them individually as often as possible. For horses who get particularly attached at competitions, arrange to work the individuals on the show grounds in early warm-up sessions or schooling during non-show days. Such excursions are low stress for you and great experience for a horse who needs to become comfortable away from home and his or her bosom companion.
Of all the behavior problems of horses, separation anxiety can be one of the most troubling to deal with. On one hand, the solution seems simple: Just leave the horses together forever so everyone can enjoy the peace. On the other hand, failing to confront the obsession puts you in a really tough situation when one horse is injured, sold or otherwise must be separated from the other. The solution to obsessive friendships usually isn't difficult, but it does demand some creativity in devising a safe way to separate the pair and thick enough skin to follow through even during the worst of the emotional turmoil. Learning to let go is as important a lesson for domesticated horses as it is for their brothers and sisters in the wild.
Case Study: The Only Two Horses in the World
Bastet and Lear were a pair of healthy, well-tended part-Arabians who came to Lone Star Equine Rescue because their owners could no longer care for them. Bastet was nearly 25 years old and Lear was her 19-year-old son. When the volunteers arrived, the two horses were grazing side by side in their pasture and were easily caught and led to the trailer. Bastet walked willingly up the ramp, but the moment she was out of view, Lear began dancing at the end of his lead and neighing nervously. When his dam called, he became even more agitated and charged into the trailer.
At their new home, the two were put in adjoining stalls, with a solid wall between them. Lear paced and fretted, unwilling to eat or drink, revealing an unhealthy degree of attachment to his dam. Bastet called back to him occasionally but didn't seem as upset. The next day, when a trainer took Bastet from her stall, Lear whinnied so loudly that other boarders at the barn rushed to his stall, concerned that he was being hurt.
In reviewing the case, we realized that the pair had lived together with only each other for company for 19 years. As far as Lear knew, his dam was the only other horse in the world, and without direct access to her, his whole life was in turmoil. Adopting out horses is difficult, and finding one home to take a bonded pair is nearly impossible, so we decided that to ensure Lear's future, he had to be "weaned" at the age of 19.
The mother and son remained in the adjoining stalls, and for the first few days Lear paced the dividing wall and frequently nickered to her. Gradually, he stopped pacing and settled down. Once he accepted that separation, Bastet was moved to an outside pen next to another horse who could provide her with companionship, and Lear was left in his stall, also with a new companion. Bastet occasionally whinnied for Lear, but Lear called nearly constantly for Bastet for the first week of their separation. We found ourselves repeatedly explaining to other boarders that what we were doing wasn't cruel and unusual.
After a week, Lear quieted and began to show an interest in the horse next to him. After that, the gelding was moved to various stalls and paddocks so that he always had companionship but with different horses. About a month later, Bastet was adopted, and a month after that, Lear moved on to another home. Both horses are doing fine physically and emotionally in their new homes with new horses for companionship. This case, in particular, taught me that even the most deeply rooted cases of separation anxiety can be overcome.
Case Study: Bonded for the Moment
Jawhari was a young Arabian gelding who had just begun his show career. Scooter was an older Quarter Horse who was used to traveling to shows. The two horses were kept on the same property but lived in different barns and were never near each other. I'd call them acquaintances but not friends.
When Scooter accompanied Jawhari to his first show, however, the stress of the situation drove the younger horse to decide that Scooter was his soul mate. While in the showring, Jawhari repeatedly called for Scooter, who ignored him. Needless to say, Jawhari was not the star of that show.
Once the pair returned home, they went to their separate barns, and Jawhari no longer called to or watched for Scooter. Their attachment was associated only with the stress of the show. Jawhari's owner took him to another show the following week with a different horse and continued to regularly take the gelding places with new companions. Eventually, as traveling became commonplace, Jawhari no longer bonded with his trailer companions and is today a successful show horse.
Case Study: Sorrowful Partings?
We've all heard stories of horses who have grieved inconsolably for months after the death of an equine friend. I've even heard of horses who "died of a broken heart" after the passing of a pal. As touching as these stories are, I view them as products of our human interpretation of companionship and death. The fact that we are heartbroken over the passing of a horse may lead us to see his remaining companions in the same emotional state to help us share the burden of the loss. A horse who is suddenly without a long-term companion may miss that horse and even become anxious and depressed in his absence, but horses have no concept of death. The "grieving" that we see is simple separation anxiety and, when treated as such, will resolve itself as if the deceased horse had simply been moved to another barn.
This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of EQUUS magazine.