Does your horse ever get anxious or ‘disconnected’ when you take him or her away from the herd, or barn sour at leaving their comfort zone? It can be frightening, dangerous, or just irritating or embarrassing – but it’s only natural for horses to feel separation anxiety. The trick is to understand what causes them to feel anxious or attached, so we can help them through their fear or resistance. It’s easier than you might think!
I get so many questions on this topic I thought I’d share my favorite exercise to start solving this common complaint! But first, a little discussion on horse behavior.
What causes a horse to have separation anxiety?
The simple answer is, nature. Horses are herd animals, and feel safest when they are with their bonded family group. In a pinch, any herd of horses will do if the alternative is to be alone and vulnerable. Horses need connection like we need oxygen.
How do you get a horse used to being alone?
You don’t. 99.99% of horses will freak out if they feel alone – and rightly so. They are hard-wired by nature not to feel safe when they are all alone.
Here’s the thing –
When you take one horse out ‘alone’ on the trail, he isn’t actually alone, because he is with YOU! The tricky part for many people is getting the horse to recognize that being with a person can feel as good as being with another horse. This doesn’t just happen automatically…
Why is being barn sour or buddy sour such a common problem?
Because most people are going about solving it the wrong way… most of these horses don’t have “behavior problems” – they are just being horses. Sometimes early trauma or experiences in a horses life can lead to a more extreme version of this natural aversion to being alone – and many unnatural factors in a domesticated horses life can lead to more anxiety – BUT this exercise will help, regardless of the cause of your horses separation anxiety!
Rather than trying to distract your horse, tire him out, or use an incentive like feed or bringing a buddy, I suggest a wholly different approach to help a horse feel less needy or anxious, and more solidly connected to YOU.
The goal should not be to make your horse more obedient or to make him feel OK with leaving his herd. Instead, you need to become a replacement for his herd, therefore offering the same kind of safety, security and connection he needs to feel okay.
Here’s my #1 exercise for solving a barn sour or buddy sour horse:
Once you halter the horse, don’t leave the herd, stall or paddock right away, but don’t try to make it feel like ‘work’ or uncomfortable either. Just hang out for a few minutes, and then try this one simple exercise – it’s a conversation about personal space and boundaries.
How to actually DO the exercise
Without ‘defending your space’ or engaging in dominance games, practice going from sharing close/intimate space (close enough to touch, scratching, etc) and then calmly changing to sharing space with more distance between you, about 4 feet, in what I call Polite Space.
For this to work, you must be far enough apart that you cannot easily touch one another without taking two or more steps.
Once you and the horse start to get the idea, only then start to walk to the barn or grooming area. You should stop along the way to revisit the two types of space a few times – at the gate, while still in sight of the herd or stall, and just before tying, are three good places. Or do it as needed if he crowds you or pulls away.
The focus and connection that come as side effects of this exercise will naturally lead you two to functioning as a small and independent herd!
There are several additional benefits to practicing this spatial exercise.
The better your horse becomes at politely moving out to a Polite Space distance, the better your horse’s posture will become. Most horses start to stand up more correctly and shift some of their weight from the forehand to the hindquarters. This leads to improvements in self-carriage and response time. Behavior-wise, your horse will become more and more polite, and things like crowding or pushing will become problems of the past.
I’ve dedicated a whole chapter in my book to this topic of Polite Space and why it’s so important. If you haven’t read it yet, go grab your free digital copy by clicking here, and also check out the new video lesson course I’ve put together that expands on several of the topics I introduce in the book.
Hope you found this helpful. I’d love to hear about your experience practicing moving between Polite Space and Intimate/Close Space with your horse – tell me all about it in the comments below!