Case Study: Dancer — Isolation Distress in a Horse

Written by Carol-Ann Doucet, CHBC

Peer reviewed

Summary: An anxious mare’s behavior problems are made worse when she’s taken away from her herd. A history of physical punishment when alone, and frustration on the part of the client exacerbated her isolation distress further. A program of desensitization to handling, operant conditioning, and patience lead to steady improvements.


Name: Dancer

Sex: Mare

Breed: Canadian Horse

Age: 7 years old

Humans involved: Manon, Dancer’s owner, and Patrick, the barn manager

Living conditions

Housing: The horses live in a 20,000-square-foot sand paddock. The barn is used for preparing horses, brushing and saddling them, as well as during vet and farrier visits. No horse lives in the barn currently.

Socialization: Dancer lives with 5 other horses of various sexes, ages, and breeds. The herd is stable and lives without conflicts.

Diet: The horses are fed with large round hay bales. Dancer receives minerals and vitamins every morning, distributed directly to the paddock. The horses eat under the supervision of Patrick, who keeps them separated with the use of a whip.

Exercise: Dancer does not get a lot of exercise in the paddock, as the resources are all close to each other. The large hay bales do not encourage the horses to move either. Manon used to go in a group to hike three times a week with her friends or ride sometimes in the arena, but she hasn’t taken her mare out for two months due to her problematic behaviors and Manon’s injury.

History

Manon bought Dancer directly from the breeding facility when the filly was 18 months old. She was weaned at the age of 4 months before being placed with another filly of her age in a paddock. Following her purchase, Dancer was placed in an outside boarding house where she stayed for two months. Unfortunately, Dancer had a hard time fitting in, and she was chased by the other horses when she tried to access the hay feeder. Following a minor injury Dancer incurred from another horse, Manon chose to change boarding places and put Dancer in a pasture. She stayed there for almost a year before being placed in a training facility for three months. When she got Dancer back from that facility, Manon tried two other stables before finding her current boarding barn, where Dancer has lived for three years.

Medical history: Dancer has no known health problems. One month before my visit, she was examined by a veterinarian during an annual preventive visit, and Manon took the opportunity to talk with him about Dancer’s behavioral problems and ask him for a full exam with bloodwork.

Behavior history

Manon contacted me because she had a lot of difficulty handling Dancer. She described her as an “explosive” and very anxious mare. When I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by explosive, she told me that the mare was unpredictable and that she could be calm for a while and then suddenly panic. The major problem was that Dancer could push her handler before snatching the leash out of her hands and running away. Because of this problem, Manon could no longer get her mare out of her paddock. She told me that after Dancer pushed her violently to the point of knocking her over and she sprained her ankle, she started to be afraid of her. Reluctantly, she had come to think of selling her.

She said her mare had always been “disrespectful” during handling, but that the problematic behavior of pulling the leash out of her hands and running away began about six months ago. When I asked Manon to describe Dancer’s “disrespectful” behaviors during handling, she told me that Dancer tended to overtake her handler and push him aside. She could sometimes bite too.

I asked Manon to tell me what happened the first time Dancer snatched the leash from her hands and ran away. She told me that this happened while she was trying to get Dancer to the arena. The mare refused to enter because the mounting block stood near the entrance to the arena. Manon admits to having “insisted” a lot, thinking that her mare was testing her since it was not the first time that she had seen this mounting block. It had only changed places. When I asked Manon to explain to me what she meant by “insisting,” she told me that she first started by pulling on the leash harder, but Dancer remained still and only raised her head. So, she proceeded to move Dancer’s feet by shaking the leash near her hindquarters to spin her in a tight circle before leading Dancer towards the entrance again, to no avail.

Manon then admits that she began to lose patience and started to turn her mare more abruptly by hitting the leash on her hindquarters, until Dancer bolted.  She told me that the mare had gone in the direction of her paddock, and when Manon found her, she was grazing near the fence. She was breathing heavily and looking around. Thereafter, the mare began to adopt this behavior each time Manon headed for the arena and, some time later, when she tried to bring her to the stable as well. Each time, the mare returned to her paddock.

Noting Dancer’s strong desire to stay close to her peers, I asked Manon if she had ever noticed that Dancer was difficult to separate from other horses or if she was particularly stressed when she was away from her herd. She confirmed to me that she had always had this issue with her mare. When Dancer was alone in the stable she would get restless, neigh, and could paw or bite, but it didn’t bother Manon more than that since she managed to brush and saddle the mare anyway.

She had first spoken about it to the trainer who broke her mare under saddle, and this trainer had suggested keeping the mare in the stall for a few weeks to teach her to stay alone. Manon did not find that this had improved the behavior of her mare; she even suspects that it made it worse. However, since most of the time Manon went hiking (trail riding) with friends, Dancer rarely found herself alone. The owner did not like feeling  dependent on others to do activities with her mare. Sometimes she would have liked to go hiking or ride alone in the arena with no worries about Dancer’s behavior.

I asked the owner to describe Dancer’s behavior when she was in the saddle. She told me that when the mare was with her paddock mates on trails, she was “adorable.” She remained calm and attentive, as long as she was behind and not in front of the other horses. Manon had never dared to go trail-riding without friends, but she had managed to ride alone in the arena. Sometimes Dancer neighed, carried to trot or tried to move towards the door, but Manon said she managed to keep control of the situation by keeping her mare in circles and making her make several movements.

For those reasons, Manon didn’t ride so much in the arena even though it was an activity she normally enjoys. She told me that she wanted to ride more often in the arena, but that the complicated behavior of her mare dissuaded her, and her friends were mostly trail riders.

While I was taking Dancer’s history, I also learned that Manon was an experienced horse rider. She told me that she had taken lessons for about 15 years during her childhood. She had also participated in some dressage competitions, but she had quit riding upon entering college. Then she bought Dancer, her first horse, years later. Although it had been over ten years since she rode a horse when she bought Dancer, she assured me that it was like riding a bicycle and that she had not lost any of her skills.

Observations

I joined Manon at the stable and she showed me around. The stable was located in the middle of the woods. A few feet behind the stable, a large area had been cleared to build two paddocks. The third paddock was located to the left of the stable, behind the arena, and could be seen between the trees. The property housed 14 horses in all.

Manon took her halter and leash and we headed for Dancer’s paddock. I noticed that she had taken a lead chain, and I asked her if she had been using it for a long time. She told me that it was first Patrick, the barn manager, who started using it after Dancer started to run away when handling. Patrick rarely handled Dancer; he only brought her into the stable when the farrier passed by since Manon was rarely available during his visits. However, for some time he had stopped doing it since Dancer had become too difficult to handle.

In fact, the lead chain had dissuaded Dancer from running away for a while, but then the problem returned. Manon told me that she tried different tools like a rope halter or cavecon, but none of them had been effective or severe enough to hold Dancer. Mentioning that she had tried everything to correct her mare’s behavior and that it only got worse, Manon was ready to rigorously follow my recommendations.

When we got to the paddock the horses were calmly eating around the bale of hay. As Manon entered, Dancer raised her head for a few seconds to look at her, and then began to eat again. Manon slowly approached her mare and as she reached her, Dancer shifted then walked away a few feet, before coming to a stop with her back turned to her owner. I asked Manon if Dancer always reacted that way, and she replied that it depended on her mood. She clarified that when a friend took her horse out of the paddock at the same time as her, Dancer was easier to catch. She calmly approached the mare again, then handed her a treat to attract her. As Dancer craned her neck to catch the treat with the tip of her lips, Manon hurried to throw the leash around her mare’s neck. Dancer did not run away but lifted her head up high, and her owner therefore had difficulty passing him the halter afterwards. Manon chuckled, saying her mare was probably upset because she hadn’t come to see her for a long time.

When Manon came out of the paddock and turned to close the door, Dancer quickly ducked her head to grab a clump of grass. Her owner immediately pulled on the leash, but that didn’t stop Dancer from eating. I was surprised to see how Manon had to pull hard to be able to raise the head of her mare, despite the chain on her nose. She then walked away from the grass and stopped. As she found Dancer too close to her, she asked her to step back by exerting pressure on the leash backwards. The mare did not react, and Manon had to give three successive blows on the leash to get a single step back. At the same time, Dancer looked around calmly and didn’t seem worried. When I commented to Manon about Dancer’s calmness, she told me it was because we hadn’t moved away yet. And when I asked her if she had always used such strong pressure levels to back up her mare, she told me that Dancer hadn’t indeed been very sensitive. She has had the same problem when she asked the mare to move her shoulders and hindquarters.

Since Manon was not comfortable with the idea of ​​walking with her mare, she asked me if I wanted to handle her. I took the precaution of putting on gloves and I slowly approached Dancer to take the leash. I walked towards the stable and the mare followed me a few feet before stopping and looking towards the other horses. I asked Manon where she usually could walk before Dancer ran off and she pointed to a row of trees about 20 feet in front of us. From there, she would lose sight of the horses and become very stressed. However, as the mare seemed hesitant to move forward, I stood still with her and gave her a treat to reassure her. I took the opportunity to ask Manon to pull up a few blades of grass further and to come and give them to her mare, as this food seemed to have a high value for her.

After a two-minute break giving Dancer some grass there, I took a few steps forward to see if the mare was going to follow me. She walked a few steps before stopping behind me again and turning her head towards her peers. Then she started to get more stressed and began stomping, before taking the leash in her mouth. Manon didn’t seem to notice the change in her mare’s behavior and told me that if I insisted a little and pulled on the leash, Dancer would probably follow me again. I told Manon that the mare was not ready to follow us and asked her if she could go get some grass again to feed Dancer. Although she was more aroused and tense than at first, constantly looking behind her, Dancer remained still as Manon fed her. I noticed, however, that she was picking up the tufts of grass in a hurry and I warned Manon to be careful to avoid accidentally getting nipped by Dancer’s teeth.

After another nearly five-minute break, Dancer looked behind her less often, ate more calmly, and her head was lowered. I asked Manon if it was possible to take another horse out of the paddock to see if Dancer would agree to follow him to the stable. Manon made a phone call to one of her friends and was given permission to take her horse, an Appaloosa gelding, out. I came back to the paddock as Manon came in to look for him. Although Dancer was still a little hesitant to walk away, stopping to look behind her a few times, she followed the Appaloosa to the stable. I noticed that she walked quickly, that she tried to take the leash in her mouth and that she had a tendency to take over. If I applied pressure to the leash to restrain her, she would not respond. Considering that Dancer wasn’t too gentle with her mouth when aroused, I didn’t dare use a treat to try to keep her by my side, but I thought it would be a great idea to bring a target stick next time to handle her. Manon stopped in front of the stable door with a large smile. Although she suspected that Dancer would follow one of her peers, she had never dared to try it since her accident. She told me it gave her a lot of hope, even though she was still apprehensive about handling her mare. Then I suggested that we put the horses back in their paddock and that we go and establish the intervention plan together.

Assessment

When I learned about Dancer’s history, I discovered that several elements predisposed her to have separation anxiety, including her early weaning, her saddle-breaking at a young age, her frequent boarding changes, and the fact that she had been isolated from other horses for several months during her training. Manon had the impression that her behavior had worsened following her time with the trainer, which could be explained by a possible rebound effect.

While Manon considered Dancer to be an unpredictable mare, it turned out that she had a rather difficult time understanding her horse’s body language. She didn’t seem to notice Dancer’s stress signals, or she tended to minimize them. Dancer, however, expressed her stress in several ways: She stopped and froze in place, refused to move forward, lifted her head very high, looked at her congeners, stomped, and showed different calming signals such as chewing and licking her lips. Insofar as this did not prevent Manon from engaging in activities with Dancer, Manon did not seem to attach importance to these signals. Also, although she had mentioned to me that Dancer could bite, I understood that taking objects (or fingers) in her mouth was more of a displacement behavior than a sign of aggression.

It seemed obvious to me that there was a correlation between the mare’s fear and the difficulty of her owner in handling her, and that it was not just a training issue. Manon had to use very high levels of pressure to succeed in lifting Dancer’s head, backing her up, and moving her in general. I suspected desensitization by overshadowing: When two aversive stimuli occur at the same time, the horse will take into account the more salient of the two. Manon had to pull on the leash or push her mare to make her move while she was in a high arousal state, so the mare had learned to react less and less to these pressures, making handling rather difficult.

The environment also had a big impact on the mare’s fear and anxiety. Indeed, as long as the horses in her paddock were around, she remained calm. So Manon had no difficulty bringing her mare to the stable and going on a trail when she came to the barn with her friends. But Dancer was worried in the arena despite the presence of the other horses.

Since Manon told me that Dancer ran away when she passed behind the trees, I suspected that losing sight of her paddock mates was a trigger for the behavior. However, the mare anticipated the fact of moving away from her group and showed signs of anxiety as soon as Manon walked towards the stable.

Unfortunately, the behavior of running away had been reinforced without Manon’s knowledge. Indeed, when Dancer fled to join the horses in her paddock, she had thus learned that she could escape a frightening situation and that this gave her the opportunity to eat grass.

I asked Manon what her goals were with Dancer so I could choose the most appropriate exercises for her. She told me that her priority was to be able to handle Dancer safely under all circumstances. This included being able to lead her easily between the stable and her paddock. She also told me that it would make her daily life more enjoyable if the mare could be calmer in the stable so that she could brush and saddle Dancer without her constantly trampling or moving. Finally, she mentioned to me that being able to ride Dancer alone in the arena without her being stressed would be a huge bonus, although it was not essential. In particular, she wanted Dancer to stop always wanting to walk towards the door, stay at walk instead of trying to trot, and be more focused on those requests instead of constantly raising her head and whining.

Negative indications

  • Dancer had become difficult to handle not only because of her fear, but also because she had inadvertently been desensitized to the cues set up by Manon. It was going to be essential to review her ground education.
  • Manon did not recognize or take into account Dancer’s fear signals, and underestimated the extent of Dancer’s anxiety. She therefore had difficulty preventing the ensuing behaviors.
  • The running away behavior had been reinforced many times by escaping the frightening situation and by the opportunity to eat grass.
  • Manon’s friends didn’t particularly like riding in an arena, so Manon always had to ride there alone, with no other horses to help Dancer feel comfortable around.
  • The many trees around the stable made Dancer quickly lose sight of her fellows, a trigger for the problematic behavior, when Manon brought her to the stable.

Positive indications

– Dancer’s bolting behavior only appeared when Manon tried to control her when her herdmates were not around. In the presence of a peer, Dancer did not try to run away.

– The grass was a very motivating reward for Dancer, which would be useful for counter-conditioning.

– Although she had become frightened by Dancer’s behavior, Manon remained an experienced rider.

– Seeing that Dancer agreed to follow a peer without trying to run away, Manon had regained hope that the behavior of her mare could be changed.

Intervention recommendations

Consult #1

Security

First of all, I recommended that Manon not to go away from the paddock with Dancer since she was not able to recognize her mare’s fear signals and therefore prevent her bolting. The fact that Dancer was difficult to handle because she was taking over and pushing even when not scared made the situation unsafe for the handler.

I suggested that Manon take the time to brush Dancer and feed her with grass near the paddock. Manon had remained fearful of her mare, so spending quality time with her was a good way to restore her confidence.

Additionally, the fact that Dancer was reluctant to let Manon approach her in the paddock showed that the mare had likely associated her owner with having to leave her peers or with unpleasant activities. I suggested Manon let Dancer come towards her as much as possible by attracting her with the grass and to avoid immediately throwing the leash around her neck. As she was still afraid, I recommended Manon be accompanied by a friend the first few time.

Environmental and antecedent management

I informed Manon that the easiest and most effective solution to avoid Dancer’s separation anxiety was to make sure that Dancer was always in the company of a herdmate in the paddock. I told her that while we were going to try using systematic desensitization with Dancer in order for her to become less reactive when she is alone, it may be that her anxiety may never go away completely.

Considering that going into the arena was something that was close to her heart, I suggested that she discuss with Patrick the possibility of changing the whole group to the paddock next to the arena so that Dancer could be near the arena at all times. She could thus see her peers while Manon is riding her.

I suggested that the grass near the paddock door be mowed to make it easier to handle Dancer there. Suspecting that Patrick was bothered by this request, Manon told me that she would take care of it herself.

Behavior modification

I explained to Manon that it was very stressful for Dancer to have to leave her buddies and that up to a point, it was rather normal behavior for social animals like horses to be worried when they were not in the presence of their herdmates. Dancer’s fear was completely legitimate, and it was important not to underestimate it. I also made Manon understand that leaving her mates did not bring any particularly pleasant consequences for Dancer. On the contrary, leaving the paddock was associated with being ridden alone in the arena as well as going alone into the stable.

Since Dancer liked to eat grass, I mentioned to Manon that it might be helpful to use it during the counter-conditioning exercises. Manon could find a backpack that she would fill with grass and put on over her chest. The goal was for Dancer to learn that it was no longer necessary to run away to eat grass, and it might be more valuable to stay with Manon than running back to her mates in the sand paddock.

Finally, I explained to Manon that when Dancer was in an over-aroused state, she was much less attentive to her handler’s requests. This was the reason Manon had to use very high pressure to succeed in making Dancer react. Over time, Dancer had therefore been desensitized to these pressures, making it difficult to handle her. Considering that increasing the pressure again and again was not a very ethical solution, I mentioned to Manon that we were going to use targeting to re-educate Dancer. However, to prevent this problem from reoccurring, it was going to be very important not to push Dancer over the fear threshold.

Consult #2

I came back three days later to work with Manon on the first targeting exercises. Sadly, she informed me that Patrick found it rather complicated to interchange the two groups of horses to accommodate a single horse. I told her that we were going to do our best to try to reduce Dancer’s separation anxiety so she may ride in the arena.

Manon mentioned to me that after our consultation, she came every day to take out Dancer to brush her next to the paddock. She had packed a backpack as discussed and was handing out grass to Dancer while she brushed. On the other hand, she told me that she had difficulty handling the brush, the leash and the grass all at the same time. As Manon took the halter, I asked her to take a leash without a chain this time. As she seemed worried about the idea, I reminded her that  if Dancer really wanted to leave, even a chain couldn’t prevent it, and I reassured her by telling her that we would stay near the paddock. Although hesitant, she agreed to try a leash without a chain.

As we walked towards the fence, Dancer lifted her head to glance at us before resuming her food. Unlike the last time, she did not move away when Manon approached her. Her owner also stayed a little behind and handed the grass to the mare, who then approached after a moment of hesitation. Manon generously fed Dancer grass before putting the leash around her neck. She mentioned to me that Dancer still had a tendency to pull away if she tried to put the halter on her without holding her with the leash around her neck. Still, I congratulated her on her progress.

Coming out of the paddock, Dancer immediately lowered her head to start eating the grass, although it had been mowed. As she closed the door, I asked Manon to hand Dancer a generous handful of grass to encourage her to raise her head instead of pulling on the leash. After a few tries, she managed to pull the mare away from the door.

I showed Manon the target stick and explained to her that the aim of the exercise would be to teach Dancer to touch the tip with her nose. Considering that Manon had difficulty handling different tools at the same time, I opted for a verbal marker rather than a clicker. I also suggested that I hold Dancer so that Manon could concentrate on her backpack and her target. Every time Dancer was going to hit the target, Manon would say “Yes!” and give Dancer a handful of grass. I did the exercise several times to show her by example and see how Dancer would react to the target since she had never done this type of exercise before. I oriented the tool so that the tip was near her nose. Curious, she immediately touched it. “”When I felt that Dancer was starting to understand the marker, Manon and I switched roles. I told her to face Dancer at a 45-degree angle. In this way, her hand and the handle of the stick would stay out of Dancer’s reach.

I asked Manon to practice this exercise regularly in the coming week. If Dancer without hesitation touched the tip with her nose several times in a row, she would be able to gradually move the target around. As Manon couldn’t quite visualize the usefulness of the exercise, I explained to her that once it was acquired, the target behavior would become a great tool to handle Dancer. For example, by placing the target close to her chest, she would be able to back her up. Although grass was a much-appreciated reward for Dancer, the backpack was unwieldy for Manon so I suggested that she get a treat pouch and try the exercise with carrots or apple pieces.

Consult #3

A week later, I came back to see how Manon was doing with the targeting exercises. As soon as I arrived, she greeted me with joy to inform me that Patrick had finally agreed to interchange the groups with the permission of the other boarders three days earlier. All the horses in the paddock adjacent to the arena had first been moved into the stable, then Dancer and her buddies had been moved to their new paddock. As Manon was still apprehensive at the idea of ​​handling her mare, it was Patrick who had done it. The mare had followed the group without any issues. Although the horses had been excited for the first hour, cantering, bucking and exploring their new environment, they quickly got used to it and were all eating together when we went to see them. I congratulated Manon when I noticed that she had taken the time to mow the grass near the door of this paddock too.

Manon had replaced the grass with carrots, which were much more practical to use. She had not noticed any difference in the motivation of her mare following this change. This time, Dancer approached Manon as soon as she crossed the entrance to the paddock. She was still raising her head a little when Manon slipped the halter on her, but it was no longer necessary to hold her with a leash around her neck. Although Dancer still had a tendency to lower her head towards the ground as her owner closed the door, she immediately raised her head when Manon handed her a few pieces of carrot and followed her. Manon told me that since Dancer followed her when she started walking, she didn’t mind her mare lowering her head to try to nibble when she closed the door.

Proudly, she showed me her targeting exercise. Dancer had now started to generalize the behavior and hit the target every time no matter if Manon put it lower, higher, or to the side. In addition, Manon now handled the target more fluidly and her timing had improved. She confessed to me that she had a lot of fun doing this exercise even though it took her out of her comfort zone. This behavior being well acquired, I next showed Manon how she could use the target to move Dancer around. I took Manon’s leash and pouch and repeated the same exercise as before a few times to start. Then I placed the target near the chest of the mare, who arched the neck first before taking a step back. Immediately, I said “Yes!” And fed the mare. I explained that in this task it was important to mark when the mare was backing up and that it was not necessary to wait for her to hit the target with her nose. I also mentioned to Manon that it was good to mark and feed after the move while the mare was still to teach her to stay in her place after stepping back.

As my goal was to show Manon as many exercises as possible that day, I immediately followed up with the movement of the shoulders. I stretched the target under Dancer’s neck and she turned her head to hit it. I marked and fed her. On each subsequent try, I moved the target a little farther to the side, so that after about 10 reps, Dancer offered a first step to the side to hit the target. I immediately marked this move and gave her a reward. Although impressed by how quickly her mare understood the task, Manon asked me if she would always need the target to move her mare. I explained to her that it would be necessary in the first few steps, but that later she could use physical cues like a touch on the shoulder to move her and light pressure on the leash to push her back. I explained to her that to change the cue, she would have to set up her new cue before using the target. For example, she would apply light pressure to the leash, then two seconds later, use the target to push her back. In this way, Dancer would learn to anticipate the backing off and would come to execute the movement on light pressure.

Finally, I explained to Manon that once the backing was learned well, she would be able to use the target while walking. If Dancer tried to take over, she would have to place the target near Dancer’s chest to ask her to step back. Before leaving, I made sure that Manon understood the exercises well and that she was able to perform them with her mare. As she was afraid of forgetting important information, I gave her protocols to explain the progress of each task. I also suggested that she keep a journal to record Dancer’s progressions. I filled in with her the current day to indicate to her the type of information that she had to enter. In order to properly assess Dancer’s progress, it was important to put in measurable data, such as the number of steps taken or the number of seconds that Dancer stayed still. I also mentioned to her that she could call me at any time if she had difficulty with the exercises.

Consult #4

Manon and I called each other every week to make sure she was progressing well with the new exercises. A month later, I returned to finally work on Dancer’s separation anxiety. Now that Dancer was easier to handle, Manon felt much more confident to walk alongside her. She had started to incorporate the touch on the shoulder to move her to the side, but still needed the target to cue her to move back. I told Manon that I was happy to see that she had gotten into the habit of using the target instead of pulling harder on the leash when her mare was not responding to the light pressure. At one point, she even told me how she now looks forward to going back for a trail ride with her friends.

This consult’s main goal was to teach Manon to be more attentive to Dancer’s fear signals. When she asked me if we would be able to go to the stable, I told her that it would be Dancer who was going to decide! As Manon was still nervous to lead Dancer away from the paddock, we decided that I would do it. As a precaution, I put on gloves and asked Manon to stay at a good distance from Dancer. After about 20 feet, Dancer stopped with her head held high. I explained to Manon that in these moments, it was important she take her time and not to insist that Dancer move forward at the risk of amplifying her fear.

I pointed out to her that Dancer had turned her head to look towards the paddock and that she was chewing and licking her lips. As this distance was starting to worry Dancer, I suggested that we stay there and practice some targeting exercises. Although Dancer quickly focused on targeting, I pointed out to Manon that she still had a high head bearing and that she took the rewards more abruptly than at the start. I explained to Manon that it was important for Dancer to be more comfortable before continuing to move towards the stable. She seemed disappointed that we couldn’t move farther forward, so I reminded her how important it was to respect Dancer’s limits if we were to change her behavior sustainably and safely.

Conclusion

Since Manon was still worried about leading Dancer alone away from the paddock, we agreed that I would come and work on this aspect with her twice a week. In the meantime, Manon continued targeting exercises to improve handling. With the help of her friends and an equine partner, she still practiced the movements between the stable and the paddock. Soon she had started to feel comfortable enough to go hiking with her friends again. She mentioned to me that Dancer had a hard time staying still when she was setting her up to this point in time, but the problem quickly subsided when I advised her to provide hay to Dancer to occupy her.

I worked for about 12 weeks on systematic desensitization and counterconditioning with Dancer. During a session in the fifth week, a dog appeared in the arena, scaring the mare, who ran away. While I feared this incident would set Dancer back, thankfully it didn’t. After the three months of training, Dancer was now able to calmly walk around the arena. She still happened to stop and glance at the paddock from time to time, but the frequency of these glances decreased with each session. Dancer wasn’t pushy anymore during handling, and although she still had a tendency to overtake on occasion, it was now possible to cue her to step back with light pressure from the leash. Manon had regained confidence, and was able to walk her mare on her own, as long as she didn’t stray any further from what I did with Dancer during training.

Now that Manon was able to walk Dancer in the arena, she began to see the possibility of riding her alone there. When we last met, I mentioned to her that it might be enjoyable for Dancer to incorporate positive reinforcement into riding work and suggested that she continue to investigate the subject. Manon had also realized the extent of Dancer’s fear when she was separated from the other horses and had dropped the idea of ​​bringing her mare alone into the stable. After all, moves were much easier for the two of them when Dancer was accompanied by another horse. During the farrier’s visit, Patrick managed to get Dancer into the stable with the help of a boarder who was leading another horse. Manon had taken the time to share with him her new knowledge on targeting and marker training and explained to him how she was now handling Dancer so that he continued on the same path.

A month after I stopped training Dancer, Manon called me to tell me that she had managed to ride her mare on her own in the arena. She had only taken a few laps at walk, but Dancer no longer tried to trot or headed for the door. When she wanted to ride her mare in the arena, Manon brushed her and saddled her near the paddock. Patrick had even installed a tie bar near it! During the few months that we stayed in contact, Manon informed me that Dancer no longer runs away.


Carol-Ann is an IAABC Certified Horse Behaviour Consultant who specializes in positive reinforcement based training, specifically clicker training. Over the years, she developed her skills by training different animal species including deer, wolves and lions. Being French Canadian, she’s working to promote non-aversive and non-intrusive methods in the French-speaking equestrian community, where the language is often an obstacle to education. She offers online coaching and other services through her company Equinove.

TO CITE: Doucet, C-A. (2022). Case study: Dancer — isolation distress in a horse. The IAABC Foundation Journal 25, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj25.8

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