Stereotypic Behaviors

Also Known As

Repetitive bad habits, Stable vices, Vices

Description

An entire volume could be written about horse stereotypies, also known as vices or bad habits. When a horse develops a repetitive behavior that has no discernible function, such behavior is defined as "stereotypic," according to Mason, 1991.

Often referred to as "vices" because of the detrimental effects of these behaviors, they are most commonly divided into three types: oral, locomotor, and other.

Oral behaviors relate to a horse using its mouth or teeth, while locomotor behaviors relate to the movement of the horse.

Stereotypic behaviors can also be categorized as aggressive, fear-driven, performance-related, metabolic, and stall-related.

Because of the negative effects these behaviors have on the horse's dependability, usefulness, and health, as well as the owner's interest, identifying these behaviors and avoiding situations that lead to their development is important.

Symptoms

  • Biting
  • Charging
  • Crowding
  • Striking
  • Avoiding situations
  • Shying or spooking
  • Balking
  • Backing away
  • Bucking
  • Head tossing
  • Cribbing
  • Food bolting
  • Mane and tail chewing
  • Wood chewing
  • Digging or pawing
  • Tail rubbing
  • Stall walking
  • Stall weaving
  • Any repetitive behavior with no discernible purpose

Causes

Much has been written and discussed about the causes of equine stereotypies. Horses in their natural environment evidence few, if any, of these vice-type behaviors. As free-ranging, social animals, horses spend most of their time grazing on various kinds of vegetation. They interact with horses of varying ages and form strong social bonds.

The modern, domesticated horse usually lives in a much different environment, and, while this environment keeps the horse safe from predators, the housing, feeding, exercising, and other elements of the environment are not always conducive to forming the best habits.

Lack of socialization and confinement in stalls accounts for many of the problems horse owners face. When horses are housed individually, especially if they cannot see other horses, it can be extremely stressful to them and, over time, may lead to developing stereotypies, either from the stress or from the accompanying boredom.

Digging or pawing at the floor of the stall in a repetitive manner, rubbing the tail against the wall or another object, walking continuously in circles around the stall, or standing in place while rhythmically shifting from one front foot to the other, known as "weaving", are examples of stall stereotypies.

Unnatural feeding schedules, along with unnatural feeds, also contribute to the development of stereotypies. Modern horses that are not kept in pastures are often fed bulk meals twice a day. They consume the feed in a relatively short time and have little to do until the next feeding.

Horses are often fed highly concentrated feeds, including hay, grains, and supplements that are too rich for the amount of work the horses are doing. With less roughage and a higher energy content, the horse's natural inclination to forage is not met and both oral and locomotor stereotypies may develop.

Lack of sufficient exercise, combined with high energy feed, causes some horses to have a great deal of pent-up energy, making them more difficult to ride and interact with in a pleasant, productive way. Many horses begin repetitive or aggressive behaviors to work off this excess energy.

Genetics and temperament also contribute to development of stereotypic behaviors, although it is not clear how much of the behavior is passed down through family lines and how much is due to environmental reasons. Predisposition to certain behaviors may exist because of inherited tendencies toward being nervous, sensitive, or high-strung, and these may play out in stereotypic behaviors.

In short, stereotypic behaviors are known to begin from lack of sufficient exercise, absence of fiber in the diet, too much confinement in stalls, uncomfortable living conditions, such as poor ventilation, poor lighting, wind drafts, or being restricted or tied, isolation from other horses, and other stressful conditions.

Prevention

Stopping stereotypic behaviors before they become habits is the most important prevention. Foals begin to develop these behaviors very early and some of them appear to be related to stressful weaning. When a horse is noticed engaging in a vice-like behavior, diverting attention or changing the environment can be helpful. In addition, horses should be given as much turn-out and grazing time as possible.

Social interactions with other horses or with companion animals is important. For horses that are confined to stalls for long periods of time, visual horizons, such as windows and walls with partial grilling, or installation of metal or shatter-proof mirrors to give the horse visual stimulation, will help cut down on repetitive behaviors, especially those brought on by boredom.

Horse toys, such as balls that contain pellets of feed that are released when the horse moves the ball around, can help create a diversion and give the horse stimulation and some activity.

Treatment

Treatment of stereotypic behaviors is based on the owner or handler determining how far they are willing to go in preventing such behaviors. Typically, if a horse is not engaging in the behavior to a point that it is detrimental to its health or to the environment, creating diversions or signaling the horse to stop the behavior with a quick pop to the withers may be all that is necessary.

Many intervention strategies may actually make the situation worse for the horse than the behavior itself, so be thoughtful when using them. Metal collars to prevent cribbing and electric shocks have been shown to do more harm than good. 

Managing behaviors by increasing turn-out time and social interaction, by increasing forage, using special devices, such as cribbing collars or vice breakers, adding visual stimulation to stall areas, and providing activities, such as balls or other horse toys to push around, may prevent a stereotypy from developing or perhaps reduce the incidence of existing stereotypies.

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