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Pair Bonds, or Horses Who Hate to Leave a Buddy

By: Galadriel Billington

10:27AM Apr 8, 2004

It's not unusual to see two horses who have a tight friendship. It's also not unusual for that friendship to be so extreme that it is dangerous to separate the two. It's so common that it's got quite a variety of names: pair bonds, herdbound, buddy sour... Even at less intense level, it can be difficult to ride or even just handle one of the horses, when the buddy isn't nearby. This isn't cute, it's dangerous. A horse must exhibit manners when being handled. Since two horses are likely to be handled separately most of the time, a bonded pair is not just an inconvenience, but a constant hazard. Horses in this situation must become accustomed to being separated.

When I bought my two mares, they were already very bonded. They had been alone in a pasture together for over a year already; I bought both of them at once. Horses are herd animals, and the two of them were an exclusive herd. I could not take one of them out of sight of the other without both of them panicking. In a stall where she could not see her buddy, one reared up to try to see over the 8' high stall walls. Fighting the lead, rearing, trying to bolt...if separated, they tried almost anything to get back together.

Since I wanted to handle them safely, and to ride them individually, obviously this was a problem. I had to convince them that when they are being handled, they must look to me first, and then to the buddy. I didn't know it at the time, but I was establishing dominance in their herd; when I'm around, I'm the "dominant herd member." Now, of course I'm not a horse, and they don't think I'm a horse--but the relationship that we have most closely approximates how they would treat a higher-ranking horse. Since they are horses, they have to relate to the world as horses. I could either have a relationship with them which approximates that of a herd member, or I could have a relationship in which they viewed me as a predator--or no relationship at all.

I started with two horses who panicked when separated. A panicky horse is dangerous; his flight reflex is much stronger than his fight reflex, but a terrified horse who cannot run will fight. I had to start by getting the horse's attention, in order to break her out of her panic. At first, she considered me nothing more than an obstacle to getting back to her buddy. I had to get her to look at me rather than through me; to see me as someone to interact with, rather than something to trample. A panicky horse is dangerous.

I used several steps in getting them to accept separation, and I used several baseline rules:
  • Never reward a tantrum.
    If the horse is not listening to you and is panicking, DO NOT return him to his buddy. He will associate his tantrum with getting what he wants, and will then be more likely to throw a tantrum when separated from his buddy. You must always reward only good behavior. This leads to the next point,
  • Always have time to work through a tantrum.
    If you don't have time to wait out the tantrum, don't start. If you don't achieve your goal, but put a horse away because you run out of time, then you will set yourself back. Horse will have been rewarded for his tantrum. Always, always be sure you have the time to wait it out.
    If you for some reason must stop what you are doing, you still should try not to "reward" the horse. If he is not calm and attentive, then he should not be put back with his friend. If you may have to stop, try to have some backup plan. Perhaps you could prepare somewhere to put the horse temporarily, until he has become a little calmer.
  • Don't feed the left-behind horse.
    It could be interpreted as a reward for throwing a tantrum. Even if not, the horse may still panic despite the food; having the weight of the food on the horse's stomach could cause the horse to get sick, even colic.

Now I'll discuss how I worked with my two mares.

First, I needed a working area with several elements:
  • I needed an area where I could turn one horse loose to work with her. This area had to be large enough that both I and the horse could avoid each other if we chose, but small enough that the horse could not ignore me completely. In this instance, I used an arena, but a smallish pasture or paddock would do fine. A round pen is probably too small. I also needed a lunge whip.
  • I needed another area, within sight of the working area, where the other horse could see and be seen. Preferably the horse could not get close enough to touch, and having her contained in a smallish area would be great (so her movements do not distract the working horse). In this case, I put the non-working mare in a stall that faced the arena, about 150' away.

I proceeded to ignore the stalled horse. She whinnied, but that wasn't my immediate concern, nor that of the horse in the arena. We were working. This is important; if you pay attention to the non-working horse, you give the working horse implicit permission to pay attention to her, too. She will be noisy, but refrain from looking at her or paying any attention to her whatsoever. [Do keep watch out of the corner of your eye to make sure she's not in a frenzy, panicking enough to hurt herself.]

(the exercise)
Now, I had two horses screaming at each other. Both were a little panicky, but one was in the arena with me and ought to be paying attention to me. My goal was to distract her from her panic, and draw her attention to where it ought to be. My only action in these sessions was to draw her attention back to me if it strayed, and also to make sure that she changed directions every so often--I didn't want her to over-exert one side. I began to free-lunge the mare in the arena. If she called out, I cracked the whip and made her move. I also said, "Hey! You're working. Pay attention to ME." (You can use whatever words or phrasing helps you :) most.) If she was attentive, I allowed her to slow and I told her, "Good girl."

I stayed well away from her during this time. Any time she called out, she temporarily forgot about me (until I cracked the whip). She could have accidentally hurt me if I got too close; she just was not seeing me. Also, since she was panicky, and she was unhappy about being in there, she could well have turned that fear into aggressiveness. I simply didn't give her the chance. I kept her focused on moving, rather than fighting, and I made sure that I was well out of range. This is why I say that a round pen is probably too small.

the exercise)
Throughout the session, I required the mare to pay attention to me first, then to her buddy. Working in the arena, the mare began to see me differently. Rather than being alone in the arena, she was in there with me. I wasn't much of a horse, but I was certainly noticeable. As I kept insisting, she was eventually willing to pay more attention to me than to her buddy, even when the buddy was whinnying for her. I had gained status in the "herd" and she was willing to follow me. I was "Someone" instead of "something."
(the reward)
We had specific goals for the session. When the horse was mostly ignoring her buddy's screams, and moving forward or slowing by my signals attentively, then I allowed her to be done for that session. Preferably, the horse should be calm and attentive. The panic should be gone.

So, having achieved calm and attentiveness, I took her and put her back in with her buddy. That was what she really wanted; that was her reward. Once she was acting acceptably--listening to me and demonstrating manners, as opposed to blindly fighting and screaming--she could be allowed to go back to her buddy.
It takes several repetitions of the exercise to have a horse who is really listening to you, who is really safe to handle. I found that each repetition, it took less time to acquire the horse's attention; the first session took over an hour*, but each session thereafter was shorter and shorter. After a time, the exercise became a game with me and the horse: I'd let her loose, she'd run around a bit, then she'd cock her head at me and indicate that she was attentive to whatever I'd ask. I had her full focus.

*This is another reason to use an area larger than a round pen; it's hard on the horse's joints to work in a roundpen for longer than 20-30 minutes.
(small change)
Eventually you will have the horse accepting you, listening to you, even when separated from her buddy. Then you will have to take the next step: repeat the exercise with the other horse out of sight. Close the stall window, leave several more pastures between, or take the horse off the property. If you don't have a way to separate the horses visually with the facilities you have, you'll have to get inventive :) You may wish to lunge on a line for several sessions,to get the horse used to you using the lunge line in this way, and then take the horse out of sight and perform the exercise on the lunge line.

You're making a small change, but the horse may find it drastic. You may find yourself back at the beginning, at least briefly. The horse may panic again.

By now the horse should be accustomed to giving you her attention once you begin the exercise. Ignore her behavior, and just get started as usual. It will probably take a lot less time (than you'd think) to get her looking to you this time. The situation has changed, but you're still you, and you're still able to insist that she pay attention. It should be a reflex by now.
Once you can reliably count on her attention, whether or not she can see her buddy, you will be a lot safer handling her. You can probably begin to safely ride off the property, or even trailer her somewhere.

My two mares' separation training recently was tested thoroughly: One of my mares colicked badly, and had to be taken to the hospital. I loaded her, alone, onto the trailer, took her to the hospital, and had to leave her there several days. (We fortunately got away without surgery.) Neither mare panicked--can you imagine a horse panicking in a trailer? That would have been dramatic. But both were all right; both were distressed by the separation, but neither stallwalked/fencewalked or spent all of her time whinnying for the other. This from two horses who used to panic if they were separated by a stall wall! I am proud of them; they've made such progress.
Finally, there are a few things that will make the separation easier on a bonded pair.
  • Even if they seem to ignore other horses, having other horses around will help the horse left behind. She won't feel quite so alone. She may even begin to pay more attention to pasturemates, if she is often separated from her buddy. The bond may become less intense.
  • Spending time with both horses together will help them to trust you. If they are separated every time you appear, they may come to resent you. If you usually only take one away, the other may try to keep you from that one. That's not particularly safe either. If you can spend time with them in the field, or have a friend help you bring them both in and work them or groom them, you'll get along with the horses better.
  • You're trying to get the horse to pay attention to you; ultimately you need the horse to trust you and view you as "company" to replace the buddy she's leaving. Spending non-working time with the horse will help the horse develop that trust.

A horse who was previously fine but has suddenly developed a crush on his pasturemate can be very startling. My horses arrived that way, but most horses I've heard of had developed a pair bond over a short period of time. It's important to recognize that it's dangerous, and also that the horse is legitimately afraid--even if he wasn't before. So be careful, and I wish you good luck.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.