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A playful exercise for separation anxiety

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - February 3rd, 2010 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY!: I work with horses for a living at a major Southern California tourist attraction, but I have a problem with my own 16-year-old Quarter Horse at home. He gets extremely anxious when I take any of our other horses off of our property. He runs around, bucks, kicks out and screams so loud you can hear him a block away. How can I help him get over this before he hurts himself?
–Laura Hutchison, Corona, Calif.

HEY LAURA: Don’t feel badly — this is more common than you know. Horses act that way for many reasons. Let’s be sure we don’t “over-analyze” why your horse would act this way. We need to (1) recognize that we don’t see value in the behavior, and (2) hope that your horse recognizes his behavior is not going to get him the results he is after. Once he realizes that, he will abandon those actions and reevaluate his situation.

Remember, all your horse is trying to do here is express himself. The way we are going to help him understand his efforts are a waste of time and energy is by doing the following:

First, we have to make sure his stall or pen is tall enough and free of any unsafe obstacles. Next, we will set up a scenario where a helper will take out one of the horses from the barn and off the property. Make sure that you have communication with them so that you can ask them to come back, if needed. When your horse begins his tantrum, simply come out from a nearby place where the horse couldn’t see you and act as if the horse is calling you to interact with him. It’s key that you are not in plain sight (i.e., around the corner, behind the barn, etc.) When you do come out, simply kiss the horse off while using a long rope that you can throw and retrieve in order to keep the horse moving around the stall assertively. You want the horse to think that — by screaming and carrying on — he is calling you out to run and play. Move him around until he stops the screaming and bucking, and then back off to let him settle. Don’t stop this exercise until he looks like he’s ready to settle, then quietly retreat to your hiding spot, giving the impression that you are gone.

Soon, he’ll act up again. When he does, like a siren from a firetruck, begin to start kissing loudly the moment you hear him carry on. This will let him know you are on your way to play. Continue kissing all the way up to the stall and through the running around in the pen. Again, when he looks focused on what he’s doing, say “good boy” and return to your hiding place.

By now, the horse will wonder whether you are just around the corner or totally gone. Because this process might take a while, it’s not a bad idea to have a bale of hay or chair to sit on and maybe a good book. What we are trying to do is like what our teacher used to do on test day. After handing out the test, she would go out the door for a few seconds, then come back in. The reason was to keep the cheaters honest. Once the students believed that the teacher might still be standing behind the door, the teacher was free to leave for as long as she wanted. You need to continue this process until the horse believes that you are just around the corner.

Secondly, if and when he begins to scream, you need to be able to silence him by simply kissing loudly from your hiding place. Then and only then will you know that your horse has had the breakthrough you were hoping for. This will be a good time to bring back his buddy and reunite them.

I have used this system repeatedly with great success not only for horses like yours, but with stallions stabling next to each other, and for other undesirable behaviors.

What’s nice about this approach is that the horse is not being punished for his behavior. It’s merely a misunderstanding on our part with good intentions. The horse is calling for his buddy, but we think he’s calling us out to play. Once again, the horse will reevaluate his choices while maintaining our relationship. This should be a fun experience for you, Laura, because you will have created a scenario where your horse will never feel alone again. So, always trust your instincts and think safe,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!

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