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  5. Stereotypic Behaviors In Horses: Part 1

Stereotypic Behaviors In Horses: Part 1

Horse biting the bars of there stall.

Hopefully you’ll never know the heartache of caring for a resident suffering from stereotypic behaviors. However, if you are caring for horses, there are things to understand about how health, genetics, history, and management (care) practices can affect the development of stereotypical behaviors in residents. Stereotypic behaviors or “stereotypies” may affect between 10-20 percent of the global horse population, according to equine specialists. With those numbers, it is quite possible that you may care for a resident who struggles with this psychological distress. Due to the complexity of the issue, this resource will be the first of two resources on stereotypic behavior in horses. Part 1 will focus on the types of stereotypic behaviors to be aware of and how you can play a part in preventing them. We will dig deeper into the possible causes and potential treatments of stereotypic behaviors in Part 2. First, let’s define stereotypic behaviors.

What Are Stereotypies?

Stereotypies are repetitive, unvarying behaviors that have no apparent function. Stereotypies in horses are broken down into 2 categories: oral stereotypies and locomotor stereotypies. As you may have guessed, oral stereotypies involve the mouth while locomotor involves bodily aspects of locomotion.  

Avoid The Term “Stall Vices”
Stereotypic behavior in horses has been referred to as “stall vices” in the past. This language is problematic as it lays fault on the horse for the behavior, as though they are acting out to be a nuisance or cause problems when, in fact, the responsibility lies with humans and many aspects of domestication. Horses do not have vices, they have psychological and behavioral reactions to mental and physical stress, often caused by management practices, genetics, or health conditions. You can see the issue with the term in language such as “…breaking them of that bad habit” or “If you catch them in the act…”.

There are a number of stereotypies that horses may exhibit, including:

  • Weaving (Locomotor Stereotypy)
  • Pawing/Kicking (Locomotor Stereotypy)
  • Stall-Walking (Locomotor Stereotypy)
  • Fence-Pacing (Locomotor Stereotypy)
  • Crib-Biting (Oral Stereotypy)
  • Wood-Chewing (Oral Stereotypy)
  • Flank-Biting (Oral Stereotypy)

Some of these are probably obvious in terms of what behaviors they are referring to, and in all likelihood, you’ve seen at least one of the above to some extent. Many of you have likely seen an anxious horse pacing the fence line due to some aspect of management, usually separation from a herd, a companion, or specifically a mare(s) if you have cared for a stallion (intact male) or a gelding (neutered male) with stallion-like behaviors. A horse resident pawing at the fence or gate when they anticipate food coming is another common behavior you may have seen. These can be fairly mild or temporary cases, or they may be severe and chronic. 

Although it has been posited that horses with stereotypical behaviors have cognitive impairments that cause stereotypic behaviors, it is a commonly held belief that stereotypies are behavioral responses to the stress (coping mechanisms) that comes with confinement. A number of management practices including diet, how someone was weaned, access to peers, access to pasture, and so on, can all play a part in the development of stereotypical behaviors. Other theories exist and have merit, indicating that other factors may play a part, including underlying health conditions, genetics, and physiological differences. However, we do know that environment and care practices have a tremendous impact on the well-being of the individual. Before we look at an example, let’s discuss the characteristics of each behavior.

Description Of Oral Stereotypical Behaviors

Crib-Biting 

Crib-biting, also known as “cribbing” or “wind-sucking”,  is an oral stereotypy that involves a horse grasping a solid structure (usually a structure like a fence, stall door, or gate) with their incisors, then pulling back using their muscles under their neck. This is accompanied by sucking in air in many cases, hence the name “wind-sucking”. The gasp of air draws air up into the esophagus, often producing a grunting sound. This behavior can have physical health consequences. It may cause incisors to become worn, contributing to dental disease, and can also be a factor in specific cases of colic, particularly displacement colic. However, there is a question as to whether some horses may be exhibiting crib-biting behavior as a response to gastric ulcers or colic- There are a lot of theories and research being done. Weight loss can also become an issue if the stereotypies are such that they interfere with the ability of the individual to eat.

Flank-Biting

Flank-biting sadly refers to self-mutilation. It can also involve biting the chest or shoulder. As in all cases, it can be mild to extreme in terms of the intensity and frequency. It may start out with repeated looking at the flank, mouthing the flank, then move onto light biting, possibly to biting that causes damage to the skin. It may never reach these levels or follow a pattern. However, the first thing to do if you see your horse exhibit such behaviors is to rule out environmental and underlying health causes. Insect bites, skin issues, and underlying health issues are possible causes for these behaviors. Pain can cause a horse to look at, kick at, or bite their flank, so it’s important to rule out underlying health conditions. Colic is the symptom of abdominal pain, rather than a disease itself, and equines may exhibit flank-biting in response to colic. It is in the absence of any injury or illness that flank-biting becomes a stereotypic behavior. Sadly, some horses may experience violent episodes, flank-biting, kicking, spinning, bucking, and crying out. As distressing as this is, do not place yourself in harm’s way by trying to get close and calm them down. You can try to distract them from a distance, but often they just have to work through the episode. It has been posited that self-mutilation like this may, in fact, be a psychological syndrome similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or other disorders with similar symptoms) seen in humans and other animals.

Flank-biting can be broken down into three categories:

  • A physical response to pain.
  • Misplaced Male Social Behaviors (self-directing confrontational and physical actions normally directed towards another male upon meeting i.e. examining each other’s flanks and genitals, accompanied by nipping, kicking, bucking, and/or squealing.)
  • A generalized presentation of behaviors without pain or male social behaviors to precipitate the stereotypical behaviors.

Wood-Chewing

Horses may chew on fencing, posts, gates, or even walls. The act of chewing on bark or wood is seen in “wild” horses, and can actually be a normal behavior that develops into stereotypic behavior in captive settings. Ingesting wood particles from structures can cause injuries to the mouth or other areas of the digestive system. The body may begin covering wood splinters in the digestive tract with minerals, forming a hard stonelike mass called an enterolith. Enteroliths can cause impactions. Many woods have been treated with chemicals or paint that can be toxic to horses. You may have to adjust their living space in order to prevent them from having contact with any toxic materials, which is preferred anyway. The theories surrounding why some horses chew wood focuses on diet and boredom. Ensuring horses have continual access to quality forage, do not suffer from underlying health issues, or have an inadequate diet, and have access to pasture and stimulating experiences can help horses meet their needs.

Description Of Locomotor Stereotypical Behaviors

Fence-Pacing

You may have seen a horse pacing up and down a fence line if you have had to temporarily separate a horse from their companion, or when you start your feeding routine as they anticipate their meal. This behavior is most likely anxiety-driven from the frustration of having their natural behaviors suppressed. You may see them pace the fence line for so long that they create a path. If this behavior is frequent and severe enough, they may begin to lose weight and even suffer from leg issues. You can also see this behavior in stallions (intact males). In those cases, the behavior is often hormone driven. Any stallions coming into a sanctuary should be gelded (neutered) in order to prevent pregnancies and for the safety of the individual, other residents, and staff. Whenever possible, keep resident groups together and provide access to pasture.

Stall-Walking/Weaving

Stall-Walking or weaving can stem from being confined to such a small space and not having their exercise needs met, as well as social and feeding needs met. Sometimes a horse may start out being restless, become more frustrated and stressed when their needs aren’t met, and start circling/pacing their stall. This can develop into such a frequent, lengthy behavior that they may ignore food, lose weight, and develop hoof and leg issues. Horses need access to large, open spaces with plenty of forage and other horses. It is theorized that stall-weaving may be a shortened form of stall-walking where the horses eventually paces less and simply weaves from side to side.

Pawing/Kicking

Horses may paw or kick for many reasons. In the context of stereotypical behaviors, you may notice a resident who kicks and paws throughout the morning until they receive their food. They are frustrated by their inability to access the food they want and need. They may also perform these behaviors in an effort to expend energy, get needed social time, or even hear the sound, as this is some form of stimulation in an otherwise boring environment. 

Examples Of Care Influencing Stereotypical Behaviors

Now that we have briefly covered some of the stereotypical behaviors horse residents may exhibit, let’s consider the following scenarios as examples of how care practices can affect residents.

Example Scene A

Lindy, a generally mild-mannered resident spends the day from dawn to dusk on pasture with her small herd. She moves along from spot to spot, grazing on tasty grass nibbles, for most of this time. At the end of the day, Lindy, and the rest of the herd, are brought into the barn for the night. Hay and fresh water is provided, and the night goes by without incident. Lindy, along with the other residents, are excited when staff enter for the morning, anticipating breakfast and being back in the pasture together.

Example Scene B

Lindy, the generally mild-mannered resident, spends her day anxiously pacing back and forth in her small indoor living space. She receives hay in the morning, a bit in the afternoon, and the evening in her stall. When in her stall, she often even ignores her food, pacing instead. She is given access to a paddock for two hours in the afternoon. She performs this behavior every day.

The above examples demonstrate how a horse’s normal behavior is often interrupted by management practices. The reality is, a number of management practices for domestic horses are in conflict with their needs. In the examples above, we first see more natural feeding behavior, with Lindy spending her day nibbling grasses and moving slowly through the pasture with her herd. This behavior is severely suppressed in most human-controlled environments, as is the housing design at many facilities. A suppression of normal feeding behaviors like that seen in the second example actually affects their ability to perform several natural behaviors, making it a 3-sided issue. Social, feeding, and movement needs are thwarted in Example Scene B.

These issues are more complex than as presented in the examples above in most situations. For instance, in Example Scene B, we haven’t factored in the whether Lindy has the ability to maintain at least visual contact with other resident horses, or even the size of her individual living space. More on that in Part 2.

For now, we will briefly look at some management techniques that can help prevent the development of stereotypical behaviors in horse residents.

Prevention

Management isn’t the only consideration when it comes to preventing the development of stereotypic behaviors, though it is a vital one. Other factors may include genetics, underlying health conditions, how they were weaned, and other stressful past experiences. You cannot change the past, but you can provide quality health care and key care practices that can help prevent the development of stereotypic behavior in unaffected residents. These same actions are also important for residents who have come to you with complex patterns of stereotypical behaviors (though it won’t necessarily end the behaviors). Here are some care practices that are beneficial for all horse residents and can play a big part in preventing stereotypies caused by environmental stressors:

Diet: Natural feeding behavior in horses involves grazing, moving to new locations, grazing, observing their surroundings, grazing, interacting with another horse, and, you guessed it, grazing! This behavior spans most of their day. This is often in conflict with management and care practices. Concentrates and less provision of forage or limited access can cause frustration, as can the lack of movement and social interaction involved.

Social: Horses are social animals. They generally do best with a companion or herd. Some housing conditions limit social interaction almost entirely when a horse is kept in a stall all day, except for a short period of time they get outside access. In some cases, horses don’t have physical, or even visual, contact with other horses. This is a problematic practice. Consider housing stable social groups or companions together. Ensure your residents have a healthy social life, and if they must be temporarily separated for health reasons, make sure they can share a fence line or can maintain visual contact with their peers.

Exercise: As mentioned above, wild horses spend most of their day grazing and walking along to new spots of grass. They travel miles each day. Obviously, horses in domestic situations rarely get this opportunity. Assuming they are in good health, resident should be provided space and incentives to move (there often isn’t a pasture large enough to allow for miles of travel) in the form of enriching items, setting up water and food resources throughout their outdoor living space. Clicker learning can also encourage movement, as can setting up temporary trails with moveable fencing.

Routine: Avoiding unnecessary stressors such as yelling, sudden loud noises, a generally chaotic environment, and frequent changes to social groupings, can help provide a sense of security for residents. Also, consider interacting regularly with horse residents and work with them to learn important skills, such as how to walk into a trailer, or becoming more comfortable with their hoofs being touched. These types of learning can give them a solid foundation of trust and understanding, avoiding stress in the future.

Enrichment: Horses get bored. We’ve all been there. Boredom is frustrating and can be depressing or cause anxiety. Creating an enrichment plan and providing dynamic living spaces can make a world of difference to residents. Changing up their outdoor areas, providing dust bathing stations, scratching posts, balls and other interesting things like different scents, sounds, and experiences can have a profound effect on their well-being. However it is important to understand that it is only enriching if the individual finds it so! Learn more in our enrichment resource.

You’ve made it through Part 1 of the stereotypical behaviors resources! We covered what stereotypic behaviors are, examples of these behaviors, and a few care practices that will help ensure a healthy, happy horse resident population! Stay tuned for for Part 2 where we will go a little deeper into the possible causes and the potential treatments for stereotypic behaviors in horses.

SOURCES:

Equine Stereotypic Behavior As Related To Horse Welfare: A Review | Master’s Thesis – Amir Sarrafchi (Non-Compassionate Source)

Stereotypic Horses (Equus caballus) Are Not Cognitively Impaired | Animal Cognition (Non-Compassionate Source)

Understanding Stereotypic Behaviors In Horses: Parting With The Term | Southern Equine Consortium (Non-Compassionate Source)

“Stable Vices” | Southern Equine Consortium  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Stereotypic Behaviors | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

When a Horse Bites Himself | Horse & Rider (Non-Compassionate Source)

Equine Self-Mutilation | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 1, 2021

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