Helping your horse to overcome separation anxiety…staying below threshold

This question was sent in by Alicia. Her horse Sox has some separation issues. They are really coming to light when she is out on the trail. While the situation seems more evident on the trail, I suspect that this a problem that Sox has in other situations as well but her reaction is much more subtle. The unknowns that she encounters on the trail probably ramp her insecurities up to a level that bring out the more dramatic reactions like bucking, bolting and rearing. So I suggest we start with smaller exercises around the barn before moving back to the trail.

This subject brings up what I consider to be a VERY important concept and I talk about quite often. It is the idea of determining thresholds. This has a lot to do with timing and observation, which is key to any good training program. This topic could use it’s own blog post. However, I want to cover it here too since it is such an important concept to embrace and it is a big part of sorting out the issue of separation anxiety.

When we bring our horse to a new situation or stimuli that might worry him, we want to start with him in his comfort zone. I consider his comfort zone to be when he doesn’t change or tense up one little bit in the presence of a new object or situation. Essentially, he shows no reaction what-so-ever. By incrementally taking very small steps closer to the situation that causes worry we will be able to determine at what point (threshold) his anxiety changes. By this I mean the SLIGHTEST raising of his head or change in alertness toward the object/situation. The place where his comfort level begins to change is his threshold.

For many people this slight change isn’t even considered a reaction or perhaps it is just overlooked. To me, I see this as communication, loud and clear . He has just told me he is beginning to enter potentially worrisome territory. My job is to listen and meet him at that place. I want to build up his confidence at this point, however we will move at his pace…not mine. By starting at his comfort zone I can get him to try a little bit more and say “yes” throughout the process.

I try not to get “greedy trainer syndrome” by asking for too much.   It is far better to take very small steps and spread it out over a few days or sessions. Us humans tend to hurry, set our own agendas and push it too far. This will often backfire on us by compromising their confidence. If we can go in small steps, quitting on a good note, followed by a magnitude (jackpot) reinforcement, we will make a much bigger impact. We should also allow them time to process this new information before the next session. The more they rehearse ANY behavior the stronger it develops as part of their repertoire. So our goal is to get correct responses repeated without pushing them to rehearse incorrect responses. We don’t want them getting into the habit of performing the wrong behavior. That is why it is so important to work sub-threshold, using successive approximations to slowly stretch their comfort level and helping them to make the right choices. As they learn to face their fears, in their own time, their confidence level will increase exponentially. Okay, enough about that for now.

In the video answer I give an outline of some steps to take and exercises that will help to bolster Sox’s independence.

Another thing I repeat often throughout my teaching, is that we want to do all we can to help set our horses up for success. By starting around the barn and in the areas that may feel safer for Sox, we can start below threshold. This will set her up for success and give us a chance to build a good foundation and history with doing the correct thing. As our horses get better we will slowly, over time, move to the more challenging areas (like the trail) and be able to fade some of the tools we used to help set them up for success.   Once on the trail, I encourage starting with the smallest space between the horses. If you go too far too soon you probably go over threshold and cause undue stress and even anxiety. You will have better success if you keep the steps on the conservative side.

It is also important to be aware that putting the horses back together can be a huge reinforcement for the horse with separation anxiety issues, especially in the beginning when he hasn’t developed a good reinforcement history with being apart from the others. So when Sox gets to be right next to the other horses on the trail, we are reinforcing her behavior, whatever that might be.   Ideally it will happen when she is nice and calm. When you are ready to do a training session on the trail with another person, it is very important to have good communication with the other rider. It would be best to discuss your plans ahead of time. I also recommend that the goal for the first few sessions on the trail, is not about going on a long trail ride, but as an opportunity to teach your horse.

Okay, well that went a little longer than I thought it would!! I hope it helps to give you some fresh ideas. If you have any questions or comments…well, you know what to do!

On Target Training On the Ground Under Saddle

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