Keeping a horse in a stable for at least part of its life is a necessity for many, but is not a natural state for the horse. Let’s Talk Horses looks at behaviour in the stable and busts common myths about ‘stable vices’.
There are many reasons that a horse needs to be stabled, but in essence it is all down to the fact that we need to use the horse for work. Some horses in work are able to live out easily, others could live out, but the practicalities of trying to ride a wet and muddy horse mean they are often partially stabled. Other horses are such well-oiled machines that stabling them allows greater control of their routines. And for others it is a health issue – for instance elderly horses that will struggle in the cold. For whatever reason a horse is stabled, there is really nothing wrong with this, but always bear in mind when considering their behaviour in the stable that it is not a natural state for a horse.
It was commonly considered that behavioural problems, often known as ‘stable vices’ – or stereotypies– are caused by keeping the horse in the stable but this is one of the most frequently misunderstood areas of horse behaviour. It is now accepted that the development of stereotypic behaviour is down to genetic predisposition, with recessive inheritance, and not copied as was once thought. It is also now known that the expression of stereotypies is dependent on environment. This therefore means that they are induced and worsened by chronic and acute stress, arousal, frustration or pain in susceptible individuals. To explain further, this means that a horse may be born with a predisposition to a stable vice, and the vice is then kick-started by a stress situation, such as management changes associated with being stabled. This is different to what many people believe is behind stable vices – that it is a behaviour that can be learned and passed on from horse to horse.
A well-regarded and very interesting article titled ‘A new perspective on stereotypic behaviour problems in horses’ by Debbie Marsden was published in the veterinary journal Equine Practice in 2002 and remains an important piece of research into stereotypies. In her article Debbie says that: “Approximately 8 percent of horses have been reported to exhibit some form of stereotypy, with crib-biting plus wind sucking, weaving and box walking being by far the most commonly observed problems.” She then goes on to outline some of the myths surrounding these behaviours.
Myth 1- crib biting is copied behaviour
“Despite many studies, ‘observational’ acquisition of a stereotypy has never been demonstrated,” says Debbie, “and often, stables with one or two crib biters will have 10 or 20 horses which are not.” Horses do not learn their behaviour by watching others and perpetuating this myth can cause further problems as stable managers who believe the vice passes on in this manner may isolate a crib biting horse, which will increase their distress.
Myth 2 – weaving causes tendon problems
“A horse’s leg action when weaving is similar to that seen when grazing and such gentle repetitive activity is more likely to be beneficial than detrimental to a horse confined to a stable,” says Debbie.
Myth 3 – stable vices are caused by boredom and exacerbated by box rest
“Stereotypic behaviour occurs at times of disturbance or while eating, and is not seen during quiet times, which is inconsistent with the idea that it is caused by boredom,” says Debbie. If your horse is suddenly isolated, on box rest or removed from work you might consider them bored, however it is likely that other husbandry changes associated with these situations create frustration, such as a change of diet, companions and exercise.
Myth 4 – wind sucking horses swallow air and therefore wind sucking causes unthriftiness
Close examination with an endoscope and fluoroscope has shown that air taken into the oesophagus when wind sucking, including that associated with crib biting, is expelled sharply in the pharynx, producing a burping sound. Therefore air does not enter the stomach. In actual fact chronic gastrointestinal disorders can predispose a horse to crib bite or wind suck, i.e. they are causal factors of stereotypies, not effects.
Happiness in the stable
The majority of horses are perfectly happy in their stables and display no stable vices, but it is still important to try to promote a natural lifestyle. Here are some ideas to help…
Stabled horses need plenty of forage to replace the grass that they would be eating when out in the field. Ad lib is ideal, but not always suitable so there are ways to prolong the horse’s eating time such as small holed haynets and hay racks.
Horses are best eating from ground level with their head in a grazing position, which promotes good digestion and a healthy respiratory system. If possible feed from the ground, but if mess is a problem try feeding from a Haybar or even from a large TubTrug to keep the hay contained.
As they are herd animals, horses do best with companions, but even if they can see other horses sometimes that is not enough. In the case of an anxious horse a stable mirror may help as they don’t recognise the reflection as themselves and instead see it as a friend.
Although boredom does not result in stable vices, some horses do like to be occupied in the stable and stable toys and licks can be a nice idea. Whether hanging from a rope, mounted to a wall or just left on the floor to roll around, these treat toys are tough and inviting for the horse to use, so they can lick and chew them. If your horse isn’t a fan of the commercial licks and toys, try a simple swede on a rope hanging from the ceiling, or even just placed on the floor for your horse to munch on.