Many horses have some level of separation anxiety. If the anxiety is mild, it may only be annoying or a minor inconvenience. But, if your horse is so herd bound that her behaviour makes you feel anxious, it may be endangering your and your horse’s safety.
It is only natural for your horse to feel safest when she is with her herd. After all, for prey animals there is safety in numbers. So, what can you do to change a reaction that is caused by your horse’s survival instinct?
You build a bond that is based on mutual trust and respect and also builds confidence. Your horse needs to believe that she is as safe with you as she is with her herd. That connection with your horse starts from ground.
Ground work is much more than pushing your horse around a round pen or on a lunge line. It is anything and everything you do with your horse when you are not riding her – grooming, hand walking, lunging, long lining, even just hanging out in the paddock with her.
How you behave, what you ask from her and how you ask it establish whether or not she feels safe with you. Trust and feeling safe cannot come when force or fear are used.
The following 5 steps are the foundation to earning your horse’s trust and respect so that she can feel as safe with you as she does with her herd.
Step 1: Work with her where she feels calm. At first, this will be close to her herd so that her stress level is as low as possible. You may be in the paddock (if it is safe) or just on the other side of the fence.
Step 2: Encourage her to come into a calm posture by having her poll level with or below her withers. With contact on the rope and using gentle downward pressure, gently rock her head downwards. Do not pull or jerk on the rope!
Step 3: Ask her to respect your space by bending around you and not pushing into you with any part of her body. She cannot respect you if she can move you out of her way. Obviously, your safety comes first – move if you are in danger of being kicked, stepped on or run over.
Step 4: Respect her need to move when she is stressed, but control where and how she goes. Asking a stressed horse to stand still increases her anxiety. Lead her or simply move her around you in a small circle.
Step 5: Gradually increase the distance from her herd. At the first sign of stress, apply the first 4 steps to help decrease her anxiety. If she gets so stress that you get anxious or cannot calm her then go back to where she feels most comfortable.
The more you apply the first 4 steps, the more natural they will become for you and your horse. You can use them in any stressful situation. Your sessions do not have to be lengthy, but they should always end with your horse feeling calm.