The grey paint horse, Gunsmoke, steps through the gate into the paddock, looking around. In the shelter, his old friend, a bay quarter horse, Lensman, looks up from his hay box.
It takes a moment, but Lensman’s eyes widen. He takes step forward, slowly, as if he can’t quite believe what he is seeing and as if he doesn’t dare take his eyes off his old friend. A next step, another, then he trots a few steps and the two horses are sharing breath, necks curved so that their combined profile is like a stylized heart. It’s passionate and intense.
Then the two walk away side by side. They pause overlooking the farm and again share breath in the stylized heart. They stand, side by side and then restlessly walk away, sharing breath one last time near the gate.
They separate, and one goes to drink water, the other goes to eat hay. The moment of the reunion of best friends is over.
The emotions horses have for each other as friends is a real, important, individual relationship. It may be born in stress, as when these two horses were uprooted from a boarding stable where every horse lived alone in a separate paddock to be living together in the same field while they waited for us to figure out where they would go next. Or it may be born in the first escape from loneliness as when an isolated horse first gets to live with another. Or it may simply be something that starts over a fence with the innate need horses have to be together.
A horse alone is one of the loneliest things in the world. But the two horses in the story above had not been separated for years across continents. They were separated for three weeks across a fence and each had a partner in the half paddock they occupied. They could see and interact with each other across the fence.
The best friend relationship is not transferable and the horse left behind will not generally be consoled with another companion. The best friend across the fence is not the same as the best friend in the same paddock, eating, drinking and sleeping side by side – even if they never allogroom. And horses do not console each other when they feel sad, so a new horse with the horse left behind will not make an effort to be closer to the horse left behind to relieve its loneliness. As far as we can tell, horses don’t care to console each other, and for them, the concept of consolation may not mean anything at all.
For horse owners, this bond is poorly understood and often irritating. Pacing and bellowing from the horse left behind. Reluctance to walk or ride away. Bellowing from the horse taken. Difficulty in getting work done.
So how can we give our horses the relationships they crave but teach them to leave their best friend when needed?
First, we need the compassion to understand what they are feeling and how hard it is to control. For the horse, the fear of being alone is like the human fear of heights or of being in a confined space.
And yet, we teach horses to overcome many equally powerful instincts – such as fear of having things on their back – saddles, people, packs. Fear of sprays and smells. Fear of confinement. So why not fear of being alone and fear of separation?
The training that horses need for loneliness, like most training, is about self-control. So let’s look at what horses need to control when it comes to the departure of a best friend.
If this were you, and someone you dearly loved were to depart without announcement, without any idea of when or even if they would return, where they were going or what was going to happen to them, it would be very hard for you. Horses don’t know about our goals and intent – in fact, they don’t even have concepts for for goals and intent. While they have some limited sense of what Piaget called “permanence of object”, which is to say, that something exists when it can’t be seen, it isn’t like ours. So for all intents and purposes, when the best friend goes out of sight, he may as well have vaporized. Gone, maybe forever, to who knows where. Even when only separated by a fence, best friends know they can’t reach each other, can’t participate in their important relationship, can’t really be together – it’s like the booth in a prison, with impenetrable glass and with a telephone as the only means of contact.
The good news is that horses give very clear signs of how they are feeling. When they are lonely, they stare, they bellow. When they are frustrated, they pace, they run and buck and fart, they toss their heads, they stomp. When they are afraid they trot madly and canter. When they are relaxed they eat or wander around at a slow pace with their heads down.
What we need to do is to teach the horse left behind that…
- Your friend will come back
- When you are lonely, you don’t have to act out – you can act normally
- When you are frustrated, you don’t have to act out – you can act normally
- When you act normally, you will feel better and your friend will come back
I’ve been able to teach this without an assistant. It’s more complicated than it is with help, and it requires a certain facility layout to be effective, which you may not have or which you may need to be creative to achieve.
In my case, I have a stable entrance visible from the paddock and I have one stall that can see through a door into the indoor arena.
So, inside, I started by always letting them say goodbye by walking the best friend to the stall so breath can be shared with the horse left behind (saying goodbye – or perhaps “aloha”). Then I…
- Took the best friend into the arena.
- Walked the best friend around and only let the horse left behind see the best friend when the horse left behind was quiet (not bellowing or pacing or stomping)
- Did the same thing when riding
- If the horse left behind paced for too long or was clearly escalating, I tied him to the bars and left him, but watched / listened, and came back and untied him when he was quiet
- Gradually increased the length of the best friend being invisible until the horse left behind relaxed and spent more and more time eating – the first sign of success
Then I extended this technique to the paddock, using the door at the back of the stable…
- Backed the best friend away from the horse left behind – oddly enough, horses don’t see that as being left behind compared to when the best friend walks away normally, so it reduces the initial stress
- Groomed the best friend in the doorway
- Gradually moved the best friend to a position where he was less and less visible, only bringing him back when the horse left behind was quiet
- When the horse left behind went and ate hay, I left and then quickly at first and with extended intervals thereafter, came back; this was the second sign of success.
It’s also possible to work with the horse left behind if you have an assistant (you can do it by yourself, but it’s a little harder, you have to take the best friend away to a remote stall or paddock and then come back to work the horse left behind)…
- The horse left behind is put on halter
- You or the assistant take the friend away
- Each time the horse left behind shows lonely or frustrated behavior, redirect them to food or motions that are relaxing (head down) or distracting (lots of orders) or use discipline (lead rope snapping) for a higher level of distraction and rebuke (but do as little of that as possible)
- Bring the best friend back when the horse left behind has behaved well for a reasonable period and seems to have at least a slightly lower level of anxiety.
No matter which way you do this, you need to understand that it takes a fair amount of time, it’s never going to be perfect so that the horse left behind doesn’t ever miss his friend and perhaps call out sometimes, but with patience, empathy, and an understanding of the mind of the horse, you can minimize the issue and help the horse left behind cope with his loneliness.
- The return of the best friend is the reward. Only do it at a moment when the horse left behind is acting relatively normally. This tells the horse left behind that acting normally brings back their friend. Don’t teach them that lonely or frustrated behavior brings back their friend
- Reward normal behavior by the horse left behind whenever possible, sometimes with food, sometimes with a wither stroke, sometimes with the return of the best friend
- Just leaving the horse left behind alone with its distress is not training the horse to cope with the situation; allow this only for the limited periods needed to train
- Gradual departure and slow increase of distance is easier for the horse left behind to cope with and makes it possible to develop self-control a step at a time