Inspired by a video on Epona TV, I thought I should write a post about stable vices and ways to counter them. We often see horses doing movements which seem a bit weird; moving around the stable in circular motion, moving the neck from one side to another, snorting, wood chewing etc. We notice also that these movements are done in a repetitive pattern and this is why they are also called “stereotypes”.
Some equestrians believe that this behaviour is normal for a horse, that it should be this way. This is not true because the problem is not about the movements themselves, but about the issues that cause a horse to do them. I’ve also seen owners beating their horses for resorting to these stereotypes; if you ask them, they will say that their horse just acts silly, embarrassing them in the livery. Neither of these attitudes is right; in the first case, we have the avoidance of the real problem, while in the second we have pure abuse.
The most common vices referred to by the experts are the following:
- Wood chewing. In its literal sense. The horse actually bites and chews the wood at its reach.
- Cribbing. The equine grabs a surface with its teeth, bends its neck and draws in air.
- Weaving. Swinging back and forth in a repetitive way.
- Wall kicking. When the equine kicks the wall of its stall with its rear legs.
- Biting. Reaching out of the stall to bite humans or animals passing by or attempting to visit the equine in its stall.
- Bottling feed. Eating too fast, without proper chewing.
- Pawing. When the equine rubs the floor with its front feet, often managing to dig a hole in the barn.
Such attitudes, which are also named “stereotypes” due to the repetitiveness of their fashion, tend to lead to serious health problems -such as colic and lameness- injuries for people, the horse itself and other domesticated animals moving around the barn as well as spoilage of the facilities.
Vices are caused mainly by boredom, stress, excessive energy, confinement and traumatising youth experiences. First of all, horses are social animals, whose natural instincts demand that they stay in a herd with other horses, led by a senior equine. This natural tendency is not satisfied inside a stall, which leads the horse to boredom and distress. Secondly, horses in the wild spend around 17 hours a day grazing; this nature is oppressed in a stall, where feed is given in a regular fashion, at specific times, in a specific quantity and most often higher than the level of the floor, hence preventing the natural stretching of the neck, causing risk of colic and discomfort. Thirdly, horses, as all prey mammals, are quite energetic creatures, able to run up to 40km/h for long distances. Spending long hours inside a stall oppresses this instinct and causes distress, boredom, and discomfort. Additionally, a horse that spent its early times abused and neglected might be aggressive and untrustful. So, we can assume that vices are actually proof of severe welfare problems that our horse faces and only aggravate with time.
Stable vices are believed to be adopted by the equines as a relief from discomfort and stress. Many experienced equestrians believe that the equine actually becomes addicted to these patterns because they release to the equine body some substances whose impact on the horse resembles the impact of morphine on the human body. This addiction, they say, is the reason why it is so difficult to terminate these habits.
Some people try to fix this behavior using superficial methods such as tying the horse inside the stall or tying up together parts of its body. Such measures do not solve the actual problem that causes this behavior. What is more, they are intimidating to the horse and all that can be achieved in the long-term is aggression and the potential for you or someone else you know to end up with their face on the poop (aka be kicked or bucked off).
Here are some methods that people with experience use:
- Turning the horse out regularly. Permitting the horse to act like a horse is a measure which is used the most regularly. The equine can move, socialise and eat properly, hence reducing its levels of stress and discomfort.
- Putting other equines close to the horse’s stall. This permits socialization and counters boredom.
- Keeping toys inside the stall. Equestrian companies produce items whose purpose is to assist with countering boredom and distress, such as flavoured salt-licks and balls.
- Reducing high-energy feed. This will reduce the excessive levels of energy.
- Mimicking the equines’ natural way of feeding. Providing frequent small meals during the day instead of splitting the feed into just two meals. Also, placing the feed as low as possible, for the horse to stretch its neck, as in the wild.
- Spending quality time with the equine. How would you feel if your family and friends abandoned you for quite a long time or visited you rarely? Your horse will feel exactly the same if the only thing that you do for it is paying for its feed.
- Noticing the situation early and countering it. As we said above, a vice is difficult to be abolished once it is established, so acting early is best.
Want to find out more? Check out these lovely sources:
- Stable Vices, by Wikipedia contributors
- What Causes Stable Vices, by Horse & Hound
- Horse Behaviour and Stable Vices, by Julie Christie, University of Minnesota
- Horse Vices and Bad Habits, by Cherry Hill
- The Cause, Prevention and Resolution of Stereotypic Behaviours, by Lucy Rees
Can you think any other vice worth mentioning or more methods to counter vices? Feel free to write about it in the comments below! 🙂