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Published March 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Managing horse behavior and stable vices

Horses have evolved to socialize, move around, and spend about two thirds of their time grazing.

Horses have evolved to socialize, move around, and spend about two thirds of their time grazing. Modern horse management systems do not always allow horses to exhibit these normal behaviors and sometimes problem behaviors can arise as a result. These problems include cribbing, weaving, stall/fence walking, and separation anxiety. Behavior problems are especially troublesome if the horse spends a majority of their time performing the behavior, or if the behavior could be harmful to someone.

Four keys to avoiding

unwanted behavior

Time spent indoors — Efforts should be made to reduce the amount of time spent in a stall by allowing the horse plenty of turnout and exercise. A stall is not a natural environment for a horse. When given the choice of being in a paddock or in a stall, horses will often choose a paddock, even if there is inclement weather. More information on pasture management is available in the following fact sheet: “Managing Established Horse Pastures” (publication #08460).

Keep horses in herds, not alone — Horses are naturally social animals and have evolved to live in herds. A herd size of four to 10 same sex horses work best; with the obvious exception being stallions. Constantly changing the herd can be stressful for horses (e.g. adding new horses) and should be minimized if possible. If it is not possible to keep a horse in a herd, try introducing the horse to another animal, such as a goat, donkey, or sheep. If a horse is kept with any of these species, check with a veterinarian to see if any changes are warranted to the horse’s vaccination or health plan.

Diet — It is recommended to keep horses on a high forage diet while at the same time meeting their nutritional needs. Horses should be fed based on age, bodyweight, and activity. When horses do not receive adequate long-stemmed forage (hay or pasture), they can develop behaviors such as wood chewing, wind sucking, or cribbing. Limited amounts of forage or large amounts of grain can also increase the risk of colic. When pasture grazing is not an option, providing several (three to four) small meals per day is preferred over a fewer larger meals. This increases the time the horse spends eating and simulates grazing. More information on nutrition is available in the following three fact sheets: “10 Things Everyone Should Know About Nutrition for the Mature Horse” (publication #08548), Nutrition of the Weanling and Yearling Horse (publication #08456) and Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition of the Horse (publication #08541).

Rearing — When training a horse (or selecting a trainer), choose a training method that favors positive rewards rather than focusing on negative reinforcement. There are many horse training methods available. It is the responsibility of the owner to choose a method that has the best interest of both the horse and the owner in mind. Training methods that utilize negative reinforcement can lead to many undesirable behaviors such as bolting and rearing.

Managing existing behavior issues

Horses sometimes develop an unwanted behavior problem from a previous life experience and do not improve the behavior, even if the environment, training method, and diet are ideal. While these behaviors may never stop, below are some suggestions on how unwanted behaviors can be managed.

Separation anxiety — Separation anxiety is when a horse gets stressed (nervous) when separated from other horses. The horse might neigh or scream, and be difficult to handle. When dealing with a horse with separation anxiety, try separating the horse gradually.

Headshaking — Headshaking is when the horse repetitively shakes its head for no obvious reason. There are many potential causes for headshaking, such as nerve pain, ear mites, dental problems, allergies or disease. One change that may reduce headshaking is to keep the horse away from flies and out of the sun. There are commercially available nose nets for reducing headshaking while riding. These are thought to be helpful in alleviating nerve pain, and have been proven to reduce the incidence of headshaking.