Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How do I deal with separation anxiety in my show horse?

I have a 13 year old, Quarter Horse that is shown in western pleasure. He has been in training since his 2 year old year, and I purchased him as a 6 year old. When I bought him, he had no problems. However, over the years he has developed severe separation anxiety. Last week he and another horse went to a huge show. He was shown the first day, and then not shown again because his mental state deteriorated. He climbed the walls whenever the other horse was taken away to show or lunge. As long as someone or another horse was with him he was ok. I am at my wits end on what to do.

Separation anxiety can be such a frustrating problem for owners that I've published an article in EQUUS Magazine called Happy Together which discusses separation anxiety, and my first Behavior Q&A Column was about separation anxiety. Click here to read that column.

When dealing with separation anxiety, look at the horse in question. Is he normally a high-strung horse? They seem to be a little more likely to form such close ties to other horses. You said your horse had no problems when you first got him, so I'm guessing he wasn't overly prone to stress and creating such strong bonds. So something may have changed in his life to cause him to be easily stressed out at shows. You said he's been in training since he was two - so that's eleven years of training and showing. That in and of itself can be quite stressful. Maybe it is time for him to have some downtime, hang out, and just be a horse.

I would also have a vet check him out for physical problems. If he's in pain or uncomfortable, he's going to be stressed out at shows. And that stress may cause him to bond to another horse for comfort and companionship. Since he's been showing for so long, I would ask the vet to check him for ulcers as well since they can cause discomfort, leading to more stress.

You didn't mention if he was ok at home and only a problem at shows. If showing is the problem then once you've eliminated your gelding's sources of stress and given him some time off, it is time to go back to showing. Unfortunately, showing itself might be the source of his stress. So I would take it slowly: take him to some small, schooling shows. At first, just ride him around the grounds and don't enter him in the competition. If he deals with that ok and is willing to leave his buddy at the trailer or in the stall, then you can start showing him again. Make sure the experience is low-key and not stressful. You aren't showing to win ribbons, you are showing him so he can learn that the show ring is not so stressful and scary that he needs to cling to someone else for comfort.

If even riding him at the show grounds is difficult, then you have more work to do. I would start by taking him to shows and taking him on short walks around the grounds - start with five minutes. If he stays calm and doesn't get upset after five minutes, praise him and take him back to his stall or the trailer. If he gets upset, then you'll have to have even shorter training sessions. The goal is to have him listen to you and not panic for his friend. I would also haul him to the show with different horses - don't set him up to have one friend he relies on. Take longer and longer walks, always rewarding good behavior and heading back to the trailer/stall before he gets nervous and tense. Once he can handle walking around the grounds without his pal, then start riding him at the grounds, following the same procedure - short, low-key rides where you return before he gets upset, increasing the length of the ride over time. And eventually heading back into the ring.

This isn't a quick fix - but it is one that's more likely to get him back into the ring and winning again. If he's ok at shows now except when his pal is taken out of his/her stall, then you need to make sure to stable him at shows where he always has a companion.

Good luck!

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