From an original article by Laura Bateman BSc MSc Equine Behaviour Consultant. See the original article here.
Wild horses live together in social groups of 4-6 individuals, known as herd, and will interact with other social groups by roaming around and not staying in the same place for more than a few days at a time. Horses graze naturally and fill their time with eating fibre rich roughage and forage, such as grass. Domesticated horses more often than not spend vast amounts of time in their small field, and then are transferred to stables at night, especially in the winter. Commonly more concentrated feed is fed, and the movement of the horse and his interaction within social groups is dictated by the movement and management of their owner. As a consequence there are both physical and psychological implications for the horse. A more common behavioural implication is stereotypic behaviours, or stable vices.
In Laura’s experience of working as an Equine Behavioural Consultant with both horses and owners, most individuals within the equine industry know of or have heard of a horse that is described as having a stereotypic behaviour. Statistically around 8% of horses are reported to have some form of stable vice, with (shockingly) the youngest report of stereotypic behaviour being displayed by a foal of 8 weeks of age.
The most commonly known stereotypic behaviours include: crib biting, wind sucking, weaving, box walking and pacing. Other less common stereotypic behaviours include self-mutilation, tongue twisting and circling.
Myths about stereotypic behaviour
Frustratingly there is a lot of gossip and poor information around regarding stereotypic behaviours. This can result in the poorly informed to use inhumane treatments that can cause great detriment to the horse. One common example is installing anti-weaving bars to halt the expression of the stereotypic behaviour. (Further explained later in this article).
Some common misconceptions:
1: Crib biting is ‘contagious’ and horses will copy this behaviour
2: Stable vices are primarily caused by boredom, and box rest makes stable vices worse.
Why does a horse display stereotypic behaviour?
As you know, not all horses show stables vices. So, why is it that one horse will display these behaviours and another won’t?
Horses that display stereotypic behaviours must firstly be predisposed in order to be susceptible to them. The horse will need to be subjected to a stimulus (environmental factor), which can then cause the stable vice to manifest.
Initially, stable vices start due to high brain arousal (high beta endorphin levels) which are the result of frustration, pleasure or pain (including frustration and pain caused by social anxiety or eating high levels of concentrate feeds). The behaviour the horse is carrying out at the time the brain hits this high level of arousal is then repeated. Subsequently, this behaviour is repeated again and again at any time that the brain is aroused. The repeated behaviours that we see and label as stereotypic, is a natural mechanism for calming the horse, serving to help reduce their frustration/distress.
For example: A horse that weaves could start the behaviour in such a way – moving the horse to a new yard where he is stabled in a place where he cannot immediately see any other horses. He might begin to put his head over the door and look around for other horses. His increasing anxiety and associated stress will aid in the rise of his levels of beta-endorphins. These then hit a peak point. At the point that these levels peak the horse is looking over the door and from side to side. Subsequently, this behaviour is then repeated, as it is relief for his stressful situation.
Is all repeated behaviour a stereotype?
An important point to remember is that not all behaviours are stereotypic, and should be diagnosed as such before ruling out any underlying issues. Behaviours can be learned or symptoms of other problems such as;
- Door banging (learned behaviour)
- Wood Chewing (Dietary deficiencies)
- Circling/Box walking/pacing (Morbid cerebral pathology)
- Self-mutilation (parasites/skin disorders)
- Wind sucking (Congenital fourth brachial arch defects)
Reducing stable vices and stereotypic behaviours
Once your horse has been diagnosed as having a stereotypic behaviour, there are changes that can be made to your management techniques that you can put in place to help your horse and reduce the repeated behaviour.
Strategies are specific depending on the stereotype, and a qualified equine behaviour consultant such as Laura would be able to offer guidance on this.
Going back to the weaving horse who is stressed by not seeing other horses from his stable that developed his stereotypic behaviour as a result of frustration – the answer could be fairly simple. By moving him to a stable where he can see other horses you will help reduce his stress and frustration, thus his stereotypic behaviours should be reduced in turn.
It is important that to allow a horse displaying stereotypic behaviour to continue to express their behaviour safely. This is due to the fact that the behaviour serves to help calm down the horse, so preventing the horse from expressing this behaviour could serve to further increase stress.
Do not attempt to put any strategies mentioned above in place without the advice of a qualified equine behaviour consultant.
For more information relating to horse behaviour please view Laura’s profile.
Guest blog by Anything Equine