There’s at least one in every barn, that so-called problem horse with that annoying bad habit. Whether he’s cribbing, pawing at the ground or constantly shaking his head, it’s not only driving you crazy, but also making you worry.
Horses aren’t born with these behaviors; they develop their vices from the boredom or frustration that comes with being confined. They can even learn and copy these vices from other horses. Indeed, without human restriction, horses would never have created these habits to begin with. With more than 15 percent of domesticated horses having some type of vice there is an obvious need to address the causes and look at some remedies in order to keep the horses in your care physically as well as mentally healthy.
Head shaking and stall weaving are the continuous swaying or rocking back and forth of the head and/or forelegs. Most agree that this is due to boredom or nervousness and bad cases can lead to lameness. Some options for these horses are to avoid periods of idleness as much as possible by turning horses out to pasture and dividing their daily exercise into two periods to prevent boredom. Another popular option is putting V-shaped grilles on the stable doors to allow the horse to look around, but restrain him from the side-to-side motion. Weaving is one of those vices that is easily picked up by other horses in the barn, so you want to address the issue promptly before it becomes a more widespread problem.
While kicking is usually socially acceptable among horses, is can become quite irritating, not to mention very destructive, when it becomes an obsessive habit in your barn. This can get even worse when other horses join in due to its contagious nature, such as at feeding time. Horses with this bad habit can often end up with leg and hoof damage. Proper exercise and turnout is key and sometimes even a change in diet can help if, for example, the horse kicks because of uncomfortable ulcers. Some suggest playing a radio in the barn in order to calm the horse. In addition, horses left alone will sometimes pick up this habit so it helps to have some company nearby.
Wood chewing can be a result of a diet that lacks roughage and may call for an increase in hay or fiber in the horse’s diet. If boredom is the cause, then providing the horse with plenty of turnout could be the answer. Some even provide their horses with play toys or horse balls. Whether it’s their diet or boredom, wood chewing can cause some dental problems in horses if not addressed. While most of the wood is not actually swallowed, it can wear away the front edges of the upper and lower incisor teeth and also allow for splinters of wood to become lodged between teeth or in the gums. And the damage it does to the stalls and fences can be devastating.
Cribbing or wind-sucking is when a horse holds onto an object with his teeth and swallows air. This can lead to worn down front teeth and can also affect digestion and produce excessive gas. Causes are believed to be idleness or a lack of bulk food, and it is believed to be a very addictive habit once a horse develops it. A suggested action to end this behavior is to make cribbing less enjoyable by coating stall or fence surfaces with distasteful substances and by trying to reduce crib-friendly objects from the horse’s stall (such as racks or wooden feeders.) Another option is to use a cribbing collar or strap to deter the horse from flexing his neck muscles when he tries to suck in air.
Veterinarian Tom Allen, DVM (www.horsedentist.com) sees grazing time as a factor. “The most common problem I see in horses,” Allen explains, “is overgrown incisors due to lack of grazing. While most horses are given some grain and hay daily, there are still several hours throughout the day where they are not grazing. Those front incisor teeth are in the horse’s mouth for cutting grass while grazing. If they don’t have the opportunity to use them as they were intended then we start to see the development of ill-tempers, cribbing, chewing, etc.” Dr. Allen suggests giving horses more grazing time as well as regular visits from the dentist in order to correct any problems in the horse’s mouth that may initiate a bad oral habit.
Pawing can occur when a horse is frustrated while being restrained from movement or when anxious prior to feeding. Lack of bedding can also be a factor. This habit can be dangerous due to the wear on the hoof wall it causes. Stall circling can also have the same effect on the hooves, and either may result in frequent visits from the farrier. A firm verbal reprimand is suggested to discourage pawing and well as regular handling in order to get the horse accustomed to standing quietly and relaxing his nerves while in the barn.
Whatever bad habits your horses may have, you should keep your veterinarian informed on all cases. They can monitor the severity of the vice as well as offer additional options to help address these issues. It’s important to remember that you don’t have a bad horse just because he has a bad habit. You may simply have a horse that needs a change of scenery from his dull stall walls to a breath of fresh air outside in the pasture.