Dealing with herd-bound horses is stressful. Horses that scream when separated or try to bolt back to their buddies can create unpleasant—or dangerous—riding situations. Whether you’re at a competition, giving a lesson or trying to enjoy a trail ride, herd-bound horses can quickly take the fun out of the experience.
There are ways to help herd-bound horses overcome their separation anxiety, according to Carissa Wickens, PhD, an assistant professor and state extension horse specialist at the University of Florida.
Herd-bound horses that travel to shows with a buddy are easily distracted or become distressed each time the herdmate is taken from the neighboring stall. Wickens has friends who request stalls in separate barns when they are showing. Rather than the horses experiencing separation anxiety multiple times throughout the show, it happens once upon arrival, then the horses settle into a routine.
“This may not work for everybody, but it’s a solution that has worked for them,” she said.
On the Trail
When possible, find a riding partner with a steady horse who can accompany your herd-bound horse on a trail ride. The anxious horse can find comfort in a not being out alone. When riding alone is your only option, Wickens suggested rewarding the smallest steps forward. Slowly increase the distance between the herd-bound horse and his buddy and reinforce with a reward—whether it’s with a treat, a scratch on the withers or a key word.
Leaving the Herd-Bound Horse Home
The herd-bound horse isn’t always the one leaving the property. That horse might be the one left behind. Making sure this horse is in a safe space is key. Whether it’s in a stall or a paddock, the area should be sturdy and free of sharp objects. Leaving hay or a toy won’t replace a buddy, but it can help distract the horse.
“As long as they have good, safe fencing, they should be okay. They are going to holler and carry on until the other horses are out of sight, then they’ll calm down,” she said.
Turn a Negative into a Positive
Making the separation a rewarding experience helps herd-bound horses overcome their stress at being separated. Some horses find that reward through food and others through having their withers scratched. Some mares even like their udders rubbed, according to Wickens.
“Find something that your horse likes that negates being worried,” she said.
Separating herd-bound horses can cause anxiety for the animal and its owner. Some horses become dangerous when separated. You can offer another equine friend, a toy, hay or other distraction. You also can reward the horse for making gradual steps to be more independent.