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  • Writer's pictureAlyson Chandler

Change to Horse Routine creates High AnxietyⒸ

Now the herd of three are out in the pastures 24/7 until the grass is brown. The three geldings were respectful of each other with the occasional posturing for herd lead. My horse would move away from the other two when I came to get him. He would allow me to halter and lead him out without any problem. One horse would try to sneak out behind us but with a quick maneuver and a strong verbal NO he would not challenge once mine was out, and the fence closed. I would express to both how good they were, and we would then walk to our regular pasture to work together.

As was the habit I would have his supplements ready for him to eat and that is when all hell broke out. He would run up and back, grab a bite of food and run, run, run, always coming back to the gate, and pushing at it to get out and back to the herd. We had always been able to share space together in the covered stall area, but this was no longer safe as I had become an obstacle in his way as he tried to get out. Yes I was witnessing extreme separation anxiety in my horse. He had worked himself up into a sweat as I worked to relax him so I could get into the stall area.

I continued to relax him, reminding him he had to walk with me, and I would go out first and he would follow. Once out of the stall and on the way back to the grazing pasture to his herd mates all was fine and back to the respectful horse he normally is.

This routine happened for the next few times as I relaxed. This situation needs to change quickly before it becomes a habit and I need to figure out what was causing his separation anxiety. Then the lightbulb moment remembering this was a new behavior to me as he had always been pastured with his mare which we had lost several months past at the age of 31. Since she was gone, he seemed fine in a pasture by himself where he could see other horses. In this situation he was unable to see his herd mates because of the barn blocking his view. As I tried to understand the extremes of this anxiety from the last few times, I just had to let it all happen again and observed the behavior letting it repeat itself becoming aware of what changes had occurred.

  1. This was a new routine for him to be out grazing 24/7 (boarding owner’s method of pasture management)

  2. He was now grazing 24/7 with a herd of geldings that had always been separated by fences

  3. He had not been totally by himself since the loss of his mare mate

  4. He could not see other pasture mates once back in his regular pasture

  5. His desire/need was to get back to the herd anxiety level score-10

  6. He realized I was the only way to get him back to the grazing pasture with his herd and he displayed his dislike as if a child throwing a tantrum

  7. He was expressing he was in charge, and I was to get with his program

  8. There was a kink in our connection during this situation and I had to regain the leadership without taking personal offense that he was “Mad at me” and not doing what he asked with not getting hurt in his disrespectful behavior display

Finding Common Ground

Outside of his pasture walking on property he is with a halter and lead rope on. Otherwise, I work with him at Liberty (off lead) This work was done in his regular pasture.

At Liberty work he is the one that must find the right answer. Before I would bring him into the pasture and remove the lead rope I would step out and close the gate and hang there until he finished his supplements and his tantrum (going from a 10 to 5 anxiety level score) calming him by relaxing breath and body language but also blocking his way out.

I achieved this by changing where I placed myself in this situation.

This time I walked out into the pasture with lead rope in hand as his halter was still on.

I already had 3 cones creating a triangle where we do a lot of liberty work together.

This was a familiar routine with him as we would walk to and back from this triangle without halter and off lead routinely. I just stood there keeping a very relaxed pose and soft eyes. He noticed my position but continued with this running back and forth at times giving a good kick out not coming close to me but always going back to the stall area pushing against the gate. When I got his gaze on me, I would put out my hand as I always do when I greet him and when I want him to notice me and come. Next, I would just voice “W-A-L-K” when he started out towards the area I was standing. Repeating each time, he moved in this direction. Soon he changed his pace and now the running stopped, and walking was constant. I could see clearly now that a connection between him and I needed to be reinforced. As he continued the same pattern, I was now looking for the ear on me, got it, then the head came down, next licking and chewing all while he continued to walk back and forth. So, I continued to wait as I started to notice the anxiety level rise a bit (we had made connection) but we’re still a distance apart from each other creating frustration has he said, “You have to come take me out”. Yes, I got the right cues from him but not handing over the leadership role to me yet. The walking back and forth from stall to pasture continued. I initiated the next move by stepping closer to the stall but not closer to him. As he turned from stall to walk out to pasture, I would then step closer to shorten the distance between us as he again turned back to walk to the stall area then I would retreat a few steps. I could see my moves piqued his curiosity. Lastly, I recognized how the distance he would walk back and forth was decreasing so I matched this distance between us and this time he stopped and stood. I did not go to him but waited and sure enough he turned and walked over to me. I placed the lead rope on the halter and told him what a good boy he was. He found his right answer and we walked back in sync to the grazing pasture.

We found our common ground

After he gave me the cues, he was kind enough to let me know (when I noticed the anxiety started to rise) he was trying to find the right answer to what I wanted from him. When I didn’t move to him when he stood still for the first time, he quickly figured out to come to me.

Alyson J. Chandler


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