Irritated? Lacking Social Skills? Why Is My Gelding Harming Himself?

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Question: What should I do with my gelding? He bites at his flanks and other body parts routinely to the point that he is damaging his skin and hair coat. He is also nippy and mouthy with people and other horses.

Answer: To understand this manner of equine self-harming, it makes sense to me to begin by looking at it from a natural perspective. When is it normal and natural for horses to bite at their own bodies?

A horse damaging his skin by biting

A horse damaging his skin by biting

Here we have a horse who is chronically irritated and needy of social contact. A vet check would be prudent to rule out or treat any allergies or pain, and then we can consider the history that may have made your gelding like this. New window.

I'm writing this in the summer when horses all around my neighborhood are snapping their teeth at insects biting their bodies. They feel irritated. When driving around my local wild lands I have to be careful of irritated horses pushing each other into the road as they try to rid themselves of the biting flies.

The outcome of such actions are temporary relief. Horses bite at their flanks, and other places to make themselves feel better.

In the case of your gelding, you would know if it were horse flies and there wouldn't be a routine nature to this behaviour of concern and you wouldn't be asking.

However, zoom into the neurological level of this behaviour and there will be some similarities. Each specific horse behavior comes with an internal, mental feeling. Neurological tests done on animals of various species show that when certain parts of the brain are stimulated, the behaviour driven by those parts is expressed, no doubt with accompanying feelings.

Stanford ethnologist, Robert Sapolsky talks about stimulating animals in this way and the behaviours and expressions that are seen. The bottom line is, when horses feel irritated they engage in behaviour that shows irritation. Biting themselves as though plagued by biting insects is the sign of an irritated horse. That horse is hoping they will feel better as a consequence.

Generally speaking a stable herd life with space to move around and forage is important for the sanity of all horses. A horse who hasn't had this needs time, space and the right, quiet and socially confident companions to settle into normal herd life.

Mouthy behaviour is the second part of this issue. He directs this behavior towards people and other horses. This is attention seeking behaviour; it is social behaviour, even if it is OTT.

Your gelding wants to reach out to others. The fact that this behaviour is Over The Top signifies that his attempts for social contact come with a high level of emotional arousal. He is in a state of wanting more than just being liked at this point. He needs social contact to make himself feel better. Perhaps he struggles in social situations and has anxieties surrounding them.

So here we have a horse who is chronically irritated and needy of social contact. A vet check would be prudent to rule out or treat any allergies or pain. Then we can consider the history that may have made your gelding like this.

Self mutilation in this way is more usually seen in stallions than in either mares or geldings. This is because stallions are more commonly kept isolated from other horses, throughout the formative years and on into the rest of their adult lives.

Not only do they become frustrated due to the lack of normal, essential social interaction, lack of practice means that they also never get to be very good at it, making them anxious when they do get a chance to socialize.

As soon as there are other horses around, this heady mix of frustration and anxiety creates the perfect storm for self mutilation. The horse is in a state of distress due to the irresolvable and painful mental conflict, and wants to feel relief from the extreme irritation and agitation being experienced.

Self mutilation, as an attempt to cope isn't wide off the mark. Such behaviour is likely to cause endorphins to be released as part of the body's own stress response to being bitten. Endorphins make the bad stuff not feel so bad.

Did you know:

According to research, equine self mutilation syndrome (ESMS) is considered the equine equivalent of Tourette's syndrome (TS) in humans.

It's because horses were never prepared by their natural lives to be in such a distressing social situation that this aberrant behaviour happens in the first place. Unfortunately this is something human activity brought to the table.

I'm intrigued by the possibility that your gelding was once a stallion subject to this kind of situation and has now either become sensitized to feelings of irritation, or has become dependent on an endorphin fix whenever he feels irritated.

The fact that you use the word “routinely” suggests a habit that is perhaps emancipated from the original cause. Mouthiness is also more frequently seen as part of colt play, when excitement and uncertainty about social outcomes may be higher.

Mouthy behaviour is also generally associated with endorphin release – chewing gum is an effective, and documented way to get soothing endorphins released in humans. As with any other dependency, making the individual's life richer, especially with the right social mix, is an important step to promoting mental health.

Understanding where your horse is and where he has been helps to form the solution.

What irritates him? I already mentioned a veterinary work-up. What other things have you noticed that irritate your horse? Note them down, you may think of ways to remove or reduce these irritations as you do so.

An idyllic setting for a troubled gelding

An idyllic setting for a troubled gelding

This means no herd changes for months and years on end, and space and time to learn about what you want to do with him, with plenty of time out to maintain a state of emotional equilibrium. New window.

In another article here on Equimed.com I mention 'trigger stacking' – a build up of stressful and or exciting events over a relatively short period of time that leave a horse unable to relax fully or for long. This makes him more likely to over react to challenging situations. Is your horse subject to a number of stimulating events from which he doesn't have time to recover before the next one?

What is his social life like? He is mouthy and attention seeking, and the presence of other horses whom he cannot safely (or calmly) interact with may be a trigger for his self mutilation.

What about the humans in his life? What is he like when he gets your attention? Excited, relaxed? Does your interaction with him cause him to get excited and start mouthing you when he was settled just beforehand? Can he settle in your presence? Can you both immerse yourselves in your surroundings, relax, and take them in?

Generally speaking a stable herd life with space to move around and forage is important for the sanity of all horses. A horse who hasn't had this needs time, space and the right, quiet and socially confident companions to settle into normal herd life.

This means no herd changes for months and years on end, and space and time to learn about what you want to do with him, with plenty of time out to maintain a state of emotional equilibrium.

Source for Did You Know?

Equine self-mutilation syndrome (57 cases) Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (1994) See more at: http://www.horsedvm.com/disease/equine-self-mutilation-syndrome/

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About the author

Jenni Nellist is one of Great Britain's most popular equine behaviorists. She provides consultation services to help people who are interested in learning about equine behavior.

Search for new learning took Jenni to the university in Aberystwyth and an equine science degree. There she learned that not all the answers are actually available and that she would have to question things for herself and learn how to test ideas in order to form her own opinion.

In her twenties, Jenni practiced what she had learned, and through trial and error, established a practical hands-on understanding of techniques that would lead to horse training success.

In order to make sense of what she was exploring she went back into education, this time an MSc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling at the University of Southampton. Really understanding how horses function, at all levels, makes it possible to understand why problems arise and to go about tackling an individual’s problem humanely without becoming method bound.

These days she spend most of her week working with horse owners who are seeking knowledge in order to improve their own horsemanship skills and resolve a great variety of training and behavioural problems.

Visit Jenni's Website to learn more about her services. Jenni also invites you to visit her facebook page.