Communal by nature, horses are known to act out long-standing social rituals when in a herd environment. Stemming from the need to determine territorial leadership and breeding rights, these interactions characteristically maintain order within the group as they serve to establish close personal bonds. And, since horses are known to be habitual grazers, and as a result are constantly on the move, they’re also able to satisfy their exercise needs, and as a beneficial by-product, release what would otherwise become pent-up energy.
On the other hand, domesticated horses are subjected to far different patterns of behavior, often leading solitary lives in confined stalls with a subscribed exercise agenda and pre-determined feeding schedules that are grain- not forage-based. Consequently, with the repression of vital aspects of their core makeup, it’s not unusual for some horses to respond by exhibiting aberrant behaviors known as stereotypies, which we commonly refer to as “stall vices.”
According to a research paper entitled, Weaving, Headshaking, Cribbing, and Other Stereotypies, by Daniel S. Mills, PhD; Katy D. Taylor, PhD; and Jonathan J. Cooper, PhD, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, and presented by the Association of American Equine Practitioners, “The equine industry should be concerned that these behaviors are typically associated with a poor environment and psychological problems . . . and therefore, are a major welfare concern.” Stemming from a series of normal, repetitive motor activities, i.e. oral, locomotor, grooming, etc., these actions are taken to an unhealthy level, serving no purpose at the least and potentially causing harm as a worst case scenario. Including cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, pawing, and self-mutilation, stall vices are typically seen when horses are in restrictive environments without the benefit of social interaction.
But, how do stall vices start in the first place? One theory suggests that when a naturally occurring behavior is prevented, it triggers an acute awareness of that behavior, which quickly escalates as the horse repeatedly attempts to find resolution. In a heightened state of anxiety, he becomes fixated with the process or “stuck in motion,” unable to stop, a pre-cursor to a chronic addiction.
Another theory points to two distinct stages of a behavior—appetitive, the initiation, and consummatory, the conclusion—that when reached will reduce the initial drive. For example, the courtship ritual, which is an appetitive behavior, is terminated by mating, the consummatory behavior. But, when interrupted before the second stage is reached and thereby forestalling a satisfactory conclusion, the horse will return to the first stage with the expectation of finally succeeding. So, according to the theory, if this behavior is continually thwarted, it could be an invitation for him to play out stage one again and again.
The good news is that not all horses react to the same circumstances by displaying neurotic behaviors; it’s an individual thing, dependent on a combination of genetics and environmental factors (despite the general belief that stall vices can spread throughout a barn like wild fire). Even if a horse can learn a behavior from watching another, it is wrong to think that the fault is solely with the offending horse.
A third theory views stall vices as coping mechanisms to dispel anxiety. If true, then trying to prevent a stall vice through electric shock, drugs, or surgery without looking at the larger picture and addressing the primary stressors such as confinement, isolation, lack of exercise, etc., may not succeed. cont.
What it comes down to is this: if you’re stabling a horse afflicted with a stall vice, it can become an annoying, and even destructive management issue for you with potential health consequences for him. Here we single out the most common offenders so that you can identify and deal with them quickly before they turn into full-blown problems.
Seen when a horse grips an anchored object with his teeth, i.e. a rail, feeder, ledge that he’ll then pull on to arch his neck, the position that best enables him to swallow air, his ultimate goal, which is often accompanied by an unpleasant grunting or burping noise. Thought to be an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it is compounded by endorphins that are released with each intake of air to produce a “high.”
The theory that a horse who’s a chronic cribber will eventually colic from swallowing too much air has not been proven, especially as recent studies suggest the amount of air that actually reaches the stomach is negligible. But, the act of continually biting down, prematurely impairing the incisors’ (front teeth) ability to grind food (essential to the digestion process), could be where colic symptoms originate. The sad truth is that, once established, it’s a difficult habit to break.
Typically seen in horses that are especially “high strung” or nervous, weaving is considered to be a self-stimulating action. It is recognized by the rhythmic, lateral swaying motion that a horse exhibits as he shifts from one forefoot to another with his head and neck, and sometimes hindquarters swinging in tandem. On top of which, some horses will frequently weave in front of the stall bars, which is thought to provide a kind of visual stimulation. Although it is a source of contention, as noted in the Weaving, Headshaking, Cribbing, and Other Stereotypies report, it is argued that weaving can lead to weight loss, poor performance, uneven hoof wear, abnormal stress on ligaments and tendons, and lameness.
Like weaving, circling and stall walking are seen as obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The horse will often leave a worn-down trail in his wake. And like weaving, it is thought that these disorders can bring about weight loss and lameness (in addition to damaging the stall floor).
There’s not much that can be done to eliminate stall vices such as wall kicking, biting, pawing or digging, or stabled horses that destroy buckets, mangers, or routinely defecate in their feed or water buckets, if the underlying problems are not addressed.
Know that in the majority of cases, group pasturing in large paddocks where there is adequate grazing is deemed to be the ideal situation and can make a noticeable difference in horses with stall vices. But, as with all habits, they’re hard to break, so it will probably take time. In a situation where horses must be stabled, however, having a setup where there is visual and physical interaction to spell the potential for anxiety, would do much to keep the demons at bay. This can be coupled with sufficient exercise and adequate forage, not only to meet their nutritional requirements, but also to satisfy their need to graze (you may want to lessen the rations at each feeding but ramp up the number of feedings). There are a few other solutions, though, that can help keep horses busy if turnout time is limited or not possible. For instance, there are a number of toys on the market specifically designed to keep horses occupied, or you can hang up a ball or empty milk carton. Cutting down on high starch feeds is another way to reduce excess energy, or putting a companion animal in the stall is known to be soothing to some.
For added help, many horse professionals rely on a few tools. For example, Weaver Leather has long offered the Miracle Collar for cribbers. According to a veterinarian’s testimonial on Weaver’s website (www.miraclecollar.com), “The pressure to stop air-sucking can be applied without undue restriction of the throat area, thus removing a possible source of injury to this sensitive area.” In addition, Tri-Tronics offers the Vice Breaker for cribbing, kicking and bullying. According to the company’s website (www.tthorse.com), the electric collar “uses the element of surprise, not pain,” and “electric fences are 4,000 times stronger than the highest stimulation level on the collar.”
In the end, it’s in everyone’s best interest (not to mention the facility’s) that each horse’s nutritional, physical and psychological needs are met. The Weaving, Headshaking, Cribbing, and Other Stereotypies report concludes by saying, “[Repetitive behaviors] are multi-factorial, arising from a combination of environmental and genetic risk factors in a given individual at a given time. Prevention should aim to reduce these risk factors.” So, even if you don’t have access to unlimited pasture space or can’t arrange for extended turnout time, by understanding the inherent “herd mentality,” and by incorporating the practices that most resemble their natural behaviors, stall vices have the potential to be stopped before they start.