There he goes again. Your horse is pawing incessantly at his stall floor, or he’s cribbing, emitting a stream of rhythmic grunts as he pulls on the door with his teeth. You’ve tried repeatedly to get him to stop, but the behavior persists.
Why is he doing this, and how can you get him to quit?
For years, we’ve called behaviors like these stall or stable “vices.” The first part of the name is right—with the exception of fence-walking, a horse doesn’t do these things unless he’s in a stall. But the “vice” part isn’t correct, according to modern research, which indicates these actually aren’t bad habits per se, but simply the reactions of horses that aren’t getting what they need.
And what’s that? A more natural environment, unavailable largely because of stable management practices that go against an equine’s basic needs.
Researchers have discovered that many of these behaviors typically develop early in a horse’s life, so your horse may have already had one when you bought him. But even if your horse is older, you can generally reduce and sometimes eliminate an unwanted behavior by addressing its cause, not its symptom.
I’m going to describe the behaviors in question, outline the traditional ways of treating them, then give you the latest thinking on ways of dealing with them that are more humane, and often more effective. (And even if your horse doesn’t have any of the behaviors, the back-to-nature approaches to management I’ll give you will assure he doesn’t develop any—plus improve his overall quality of life.)
Vices? No, Coping Strategies
Stall vices are more accurately called stereotypic behaviors, that is, repetitive, apparently functionless behaviors that fall into two categories. These are locomotor (which include stall- and fence-walking, weaving, pawing, stall-kicking, and head-bobbing) and oral (cribbing, wind- sucking, wood-chewing, and tongue-lolling).
Stereotypic behaviors have never been observed in horses who live as Mother Nature intended—outdoors in a herd, grazing or foraging 40 to 60 percent of the time.
By contrast, five to 10 percent of domestic horses develop them.
Which ones? Studies indicate horses with limited social interaction and turnout, inadequate roughage (such as hay and/or pasture), and large, infrequent grain meals (two to three per day, rather than having roughage always available) are much more prone to develop the habits that have traditionally been called vices.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the two categories of equine stereotypic behaviors.
Gotta Move: Locomotor Behaviors
In the list below, you’ll learn what these behaviors look like, when they typically start, what specifically causes them, and what we used to do about them. Then, in the box “Slowing the Locomotion” (page 3), I’ll give you the latest thinking on how to deal with all of these “gotta move” behaviors.
Stall- and fence-walking
What it is: Rapid walking (pacing) inside a stall or along a fence.
When it starts: At about 18 months or older.
Causes: Anticipation of a meal and/or a need for equine companionship. Feeding large, infrequent grain meals and inadequate roughage can upset a horse’s digestion, and also creates long periods between meals, which can result in a hungry, lonely, and/or frustrated horse that intensely anticipates his next feeding. Because horses are herd animals, they feel most content and secure when surrounded by other, familiar horses. Enclosing them in a stall or paddock can make them feel isolated from the herd. The resulting frustration causes them to attempt “escape” by resorting to stall- and fence-walking (or weaving).
Harm to horse: Possible chronic injuries (joint wear, tendon strains, muscle damage) that can lead to lameness; fatigue (a horse can wear himself out before he’s ridden or performs).
Harm to the environment: Damaged stall flooring from constant movement; trenches along fence edges.
Old “cure”: Make a horse wait to be fed to “teach” him patience. (This just intensifies the behavior.) Give him stall toys. (They typically don’t work because they don’t address what the horse is craving. He’s not bored—he wants to escape so he can be with other horses.) Tie him up. (This stops the movement, but you’ll likely wind up trading one stereotypic behavior for another, as a tied horse will often begin to weave.)
What it is: Walking in place, picking up both the hind and front feet, usually at the opening to a stall.
When it starts: Usually when a horse is first confined for any length of time.
Causes: Same as for stall- and fence- walking.
Harm to horse: Chronic weavers can actually wear their bare feet down to the point that their soles bleed. Other possible effects include chronic injuries (joint wear, tendon strains, muscle damage) that can lead to lameness, and fatigue.
Harm to the environment: Damaged stall flooring.
Old “cure”: Same as for stall- and fence- walking.