“Stable Vices” in Horses

| May 1, 2010 | 3 Comments

Stereotypic behaviors, more commonly known as “stable vices,” in horses are repetitive and seemingly functionless behaviors.  They can be divided into two general categories: locomotor (i.e. stall weaving, circling, kicking), and oral (cribbing, wind sucking, wood chewing).   Stereotypic behaviors may be associated with health issues such as hoof damage (stall kicking) and tooth erosion (cribbing) or even colic (however, contrary to popular belief, cribbing horses do not actually swallow air).  

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Stereotypies rarely can be traced to a single cause; they generally are associated with a variety of factors, most of which are management related.   However, genetic and medical problems also predispose horses to develop certain stereotypies.  

Stable vices frequently occur to allow the horse to cope with an inadequate environment.   Locomotor stereotypies are typically associated with insufficient contact with other horses, too limited turnout, and other “physical” restrictions.  Oral stereotypies are most likely to be related to foraging frustration (e.g. too little roughage, limited grazing time, too much grain/starch in the diet, etc.). 

Although people suspect mimicry is involved and often isolate horses with stereotypic behaviors, there is no evidence that horses can learn these behaviors by watching other horses perform them.  Some stable vices are learned through inadvertent reinforcement by owners and barn managers.  For example if a horse begins kicking or circling in the stall before meal time, the subsequent delivery of the horse’s food will reinforce the behavior.   

Stable vices can be frustrating and difficult to remedy. The behaviors sometimes persist even when the apparent cause of the behavior is remedied.  Physically preventing the horse from performing the behavior is problematic in that it does nothing to remove the motivation for the behavior.  This approach seldom works and it may cause the animal more distress because the horse is prevented from using its only coping strategy in that environment.   

Environmental enrichment is a good way to improve the horse’s management and hopefully discourage some of these behaviors. General recommendations for locomotor stereotypies include increasing turnout and exercise, and providing social contact.  Recent studies have shown that installing mirrors or a life-sized picture of a horse in the stall can reduce weaving and other locomotor stereotypies. Oral stereotypies may be prevented or improved by increasing forage, allowing more grazing time and reducing grain/starch in the diet.   Many stereotypies can also be remedied by behavior modification techniques designed to teach the horse to perform an alternative, more desirable, behavior in that situation.  This method has the added benefit of providing the horse with additional behavioral choices as opposed to removing or limiting the horse’s choices.   

More specific training, housing and medical recommendations are determined on a case-by case basis. Due to the complexity and medical implications of stereotypic behaviors, consulting a veterinarian is highly recommended to find resolutions for the horse’s behavior.

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Filed Under: Horse Behavior

Comments

  1. I have a 9 yr. old paint gelding who I purchase 4 years ago at a horse sale. I was told he cribbed, though in reality he wind sucks. He constantly wears a collar to prevent this, though it does not do so 100%. I’ve tried the Equilite flower essence for this purpose as well as other supplements. He is allowed access to his stall and pasture 24/7 and has the company of another gelding. I know his behavior initiated at his former home where he was kept in a small paddock with many other horses, no access to good grazing. Now he has 10 acres of great grazing. He also has many enrichment stall toys, receives trick training and we do trail riding approx. 2 times each week.
    As for food: He is 16 hh and requires lots of food to keep fit. He gets 8 cups of soaked beet pulp and 8 cups of Equine Senior each day, along with Wheat Germ oil and a couple supplements for his allergies. His hay is Alfalfa/Orchard grass mix. He and his buddy won’t eat fescue (not that I blame them), even though it’s mixed with orchard grass.

    Is there anything else I can do to help him with this problem? He has sores on his neck, despite the padding I add to his collar. The minute I remove his collar he tries to windsuck on everything.

    I appreciate your time with this situation.

    Sincerely,
    Miriam Fields-Babineau

  2. Miriam, good question! Unfortunately, once cribbing/windsucking become a firmly established behavior there is a poor prognosis for resolving the problem. Continouus forage, turn out, social contact and enrichment can reduce the behavior. There is some new pilot research on cribbing horses with a product called the Happy Halter (http://www.happyhalter.com/). It has shown some early promise for reducing cribbing behavior in treated horses. At this time, we don’t know how many treatments, how far apart you could spread them, etc and still maintain improvement. But it may be worth looking into.

  3. ,”, I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information *-`

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