Equine Behaviour – Vices and abnormal behaviour

An Analysis of abnormal behaviour and its effects.

Karyn Porter

Abnormal equine behaviour varies in severity from vices that have little ill effect on the horse to vices that can be potentially fatal. These behaviours manifest them in a number of forms and the treatments also vary depending on the cause and severity of the behaviour. Recently, some of these behaviours have been likened to autism and obsessive compulsive disorder, and in these cases the equine has responded well to a drug therapy programme. Some of the abnormal behaviours displayed by horses can indicate a medical problem. An example of this would be a colicky horse biting and nipping at his stomach or watching his flanks intently. There is also now belief that some horses are genetically predisposed to some of these abnormal behaviours, from family connections or running through the entire breed. The following paragraphs will examine some abnormal behaviour which will be categorized, the possible causes, and the overall affect on the horse's welfare.

To begin, we will examine aggressive behaviours displayed by the horse. This type of behaviour is dangerous to both the equine companions and the human handlers of the aggressive horse. This type of horse should not be handled by young or inexperienced handlers as they could only exacerbate the problem. Some of the most common aggressive behaviours include biting, charging, kicking, crowding, rearing and striking. There are numerous reasons as to why a horse has come to believe he must react like this. In the case of a biting horse, the cause may be boredom, discomfort, or lack of discipline. Some of these behaviours are learned as a response to fear, as the horse is a flight animal, being confined in a stable can also seem like being trapped with a predator about to attack. Some horses can perceive this as a potentially hazardous situation to be in and react instinctively with aggressive responses, particularly those who have been mistreated previously or are young.

Some of these behaviours can be displayed by mares that have hormonal changes or imbalances and mares that have their young offspring with them. Pregnant mares also experience some behaviour changes. Pregnant mares may urinate towards a stallion or gelding, but if a stallion tried to mount her she would be likely to attack. Older, more experienced stallions that have been enclosed with a herd of mares that are pregnant can recognise that the mare is pregnant but a younger inexperienced stallion may not understand the situation and receive some serious injuries. Mares in season can have changes in behaviour due to the varying levels of hormones in their systems. Some mares become easily distracted and irritable. However, recent study suggests that the much reported 'marish' behaviour is not true to most mares, and that this theory has emerged from the anthropomorphising clichéd 'female' behaviours on to mares. This has then had the effect of a self fulfilling prophecy in that riders who believe a mare is more difficult when in season allow the mare to misbehave, or riders can become tense while expecting 'marish' behaviour and the horse is simply reacting to the tension. There are several methods of treatment for mare with a hormonal imbalance including hormone therapies, and homeopathic remedies. Very little research has been performed with regards to homeopathic remedies so the effectiveness of some of these treatments can be questioned. There are also a number of supplement available which claim to calm mares. However, it is generally accepted that a consistent training approach will help minimise hormonal problems.

Secondly, some horses develop unusual behaviours as a result of fear. In this case, the fear could be from something unfamiliar or from a bad experience previously. An example of this would be a fear of clippers. A young horse would have limited experience of clippers and instinctively would flee from something new which vibrates and makes noise. A horse which has had an unpleasant experience with clippers previously may associate clippers with pain and therefore has developed a behaviour which is saying that he does not want to be clipped. However, some horses will exhibit aggressive behaviour in the quest to escape the clippers. Horses which don't like to be caught or tied can be thought of in similar terms. The most likely causes for these behaviours are a previously bad experience which has result in a mistrust of people, inadequate training to prepare the horse for these situations, or pain. The horse is a prey animal who's most effective defence strategy is to flee at speed from danger; therefore it will not want to put itself in a situation where it could become, in its mind, incapacitated and unable to flee, especially if it has had an experience which has severely scared it or left it in pain.

Spooking and shying are also behaviours adopted as a response from fear of an object, person, or situation. These behaviours can be caused by inexperience in a young horse, bad experiences in the past, something appearing from one of the horse's blind spots or the horse could be of a particularly nervous disposition. There are training methods which can help acclimatise the horse to certain objects and noises. There are several diverse methods in which to accomplish this objective. Additionally, head – shaking can also fit into this category. Head- shaking could have a number of causes from inadequate handling when younger to being struck by someone on the head to a medical cause. However, if no medical cause is found, then there can be an attempt to help the horse overcome this problem by building trust between the horse and his handler. Some trainers state that the use of a pressure halter may also aid to overcome this fear. The design behind the pressure halter is to encourage the horse to come with the handler. Resistance to this causes pressure on the poll. This have been shown to have success, however a pressure halter must always be used with the utmost of care. The handler needs to keep the pressure on when met with refusal to comply with the wishes of the handler, and keeping the pressure off when the horse is compliant.

A third category of abnormal or neurotic behaviour could be described as metabolic vices. These are usually caused by an inappropriate nutrition programme and consequently lead to loss of condition and inferior performance. Therefore it is important that in the case of a horse presenting with a behaviour which can be attributed to a metabolic vice, the situation should be resolved quickly. One vice which could be included in this category is coprophagy, which is the eating of manure and earth. This behaviour could lead to colic, gastrointestinal ulcers and other digestive disorders. There are a few explanations for this behaviour. This is normal for foals between the ages of two to five weeks old as it assists in the build of bacteria in the digestive tract. However there is a chance that an excess may be consumed and this could lead to some problems. In the case of an older horse, it can imply that the horse has an overload of its parasite burden, in which case the horse should be wormed, or that there is insufficient roughage, proteins or minerals, in which case he diet of the horse would be adjusted to meet the requirement. Another metabolic vice is food bolting, which is eating food very quickly, and there are a number of possible causes for this, including excessive hunger, herd too large for food supply, competition for food, a need to finish eating before being chased off by herd-mates and the failure to organise and separate horse into herds arranged by temperament. The effects of this include a lower absorption rate of the nutrients in the food and a choking risk. Mane and tail chewing is also considered a metabolic vice. It is caused by boredom, playfulness or a nutrition requirement lacking in the diet. It is when a horse starts to devour the mane and tail hair of his herd mates. This behaviour causes an unsightly appearance where the hair is missing and it can cause obstructions in the digestive tract which in turn can cause colic. Another metabolic vice is wood chewing. The causes of this vice are boredom, parasites or a lack of a nutritional requirement in the diet. This behaviour can in some cases progress into a more serious abnormal behaviour – cribbing.

Cribbing or wind sucking is when the horse grabs on to an object with his teeth, arches his neck, pulls against the object and sucks in air with an audible grunting noise. This behaviour has many been surrounded by many myths and ideas for treating the problem, some of which only deepen the behaviour and distress the horse. It was long believed that a wind sucking horse was sucking air down into his stomach which in turn would create a failure to thrive, however this is not the case. When wind sucking or cribbing, air is not entering the stomach. Some horses can develop colic from this behaviour but most suffer few adverse effects other than excessive wear on teeth. It is this, rather than an air filled stomach as previously thought, which causes the failure to thrive. Another effect is that the muscles used when the horse arches its neck can become very developed which can look unsightly from an aesthetic point of view. Also, it has been widely believed that cribbing was caused by boredom or learned from watching and then imitating a horse exhibiting this behaviour. Recent research shows that boredom is not a factor in the development of wind sucking. Research also shows that imitation of another horse is very unlikely to cause a horse to begin to crib. New studies illustrate that it is more often caused by excess acid in the stomach, which could be due to a high concentrate diet, or ulcers rather than boredom or a learned behaviour. However the horse can become addicted to this behaviour as it does release endorphins which relax the horse. Some horses will not stop and it has been shown that a horse who is allowed to continue this behaviour is much less stressed than a horse that is prohibited from it. Nonetheless, there is disproportionate grinding on the teeth which, as earlier mention, can interrupt the ability to eat, which in turn can affect the overall condition and mood of the horse.

There are some horses that become so addicted to this behaviour that they will do it in the field, and more extreme are those who no longer need an object to grasp while they suck in air. There are devices available which claim to prevent this habit by stopping the horse from expanding his neck muscles and inhaling air. As it was previously believed that this dependency could be learned by other horses, wind suckers were usually separated from the herd which would only cause more distress, and as the horse copes with stress by wind sucking, this practice would only increase the cribbing problem. The best methods of prevention are to paint the areas and objects used for wind sucking with creosote and the use of electric fencing in the pasture. Also, the owner of a wind sucker should be ever vigilant for the horse to find new areas to grab on to. Although, the use of a paint has little or no effect on a confirmed wind sucker.

There are also the abnormal behaviours which occur when the horse is in the stable. These include tail rubbing, pawing or digging, stall walking, stall kicking and weaving. Tail rubbing is when the horse rubs his tail against the wall or door of the stable. It can be indicative of a medical problem such as parasites. Although, there is a belief that it can be a habit similar to a human biting their nails, and other believe that it can produce a similar feeling to the feeling a wind sucking horse get when he wind sucks. It can break the hair from the tail, which can look unsightly. Another stall vice to be examined is pawing, where the horse paws and digs at the ground which can pull the bedding back to create holes in the bed. These holes can cause leg injuries. The causes of this conduct are generally boredom or eagerness for food or turn out. Stall walking is also a vice included in this heading. This describes the behaviour when a horse walks in circles around the stable. The horse is often so entrapped in his own world that he fails to notice anyone there and may barge into a person to attempts to interrupt his process. The causes of this behaviour are attributed to boredom, excess energy and in some cases pain. Also, a horse that does this may be difficult to keep in good condition as it burns a lot of energy. Also, while a horse is walking, it is not eating. There are methods that have claimed to prevent or even stop stall walking, but these are not always successful. One method is to give the horse appropriate and safe toy in his stable to distract him from his need to walk, but some horses can just see these as object to walk around or over and therefore they do not provide the distraction needed. Stall kicking is also included in the category of abnormal stable behaviours. This is when the horse repeatedly kicks the walls or doors of the stable. There are several theories as to why horses do this. Some believe that it is because of anticipation of feeding time; others believe that it is caused by boredom of confinement and insufficient exercise; others believe it is for attention and some believe it could be a means of communicating the horse's dislike of a change in his herd mates, feed or routine; and others still believe that it is a genetic trait or perhaps a trait learned as a young foal. Kicking is a part of accepted play and discipline within a herd and sometimes a horse is not kicking the wall but kicking out at a horse in a stable next to him that has crossed a boundary and is being admonished. Whatever the reason for kicking a wall or door, this behaviour can cause injuries such as capped hocks, bruised soles and capitis. There is also the risk of losing, shifting or loosening a shoe. One way of dealing with this vice is padding the walls of the stable so as to prevent the horse from injuring himself. As with most vices, the degree of success of treatments varies from horse to horse depending on a range of external factors such as how long the behaviour has been used and the initial cause. Padding the stable works best in the case of horses that appear to be soothed by the noise of their hooves striking the walls.

Weaving is a behaviour which can also be included in this category. This is when the horse sways rhythmically from foreleg to foreleg, sometimes accompanying this movement by swinging his head, with the nose moving in a small figure of eight pattern. There are many notions on the causes of this behaviour. Some cite boredom as the cause; others believe it release endorphins in the brain, and similarly to cribbing, becomes addictive; and others still believe it may be an indication of pain in the feet. This behaviour can wear front shoes quickly, place undue strain on tendons and joints and can also lead to poor condition if the horse becomes so preoccupied with weaving that it fails to eat. Again, there are people who believe that weaving is a copied trait and so segregate horses that weave, but recent studies and research show that weaving is not a learned behaviour. Segregating a horse that weaves can cause more detriment than improvement. Consider that if some horses in the same yard began to weave the explanation does not lie in the idea that the behaviour was learned but rather in that they were all submitted to the same environment, routine and company. Horses are extremely social animals and separating one horse can depress him considerably, which may increase his time spent weaving. There is also the suggestion that weaving can be helped by increased turn out or exercise can help decrease the frequency of weaving. Also, some owner choose to place a 'v' shaped grille on the door, which claims to prevent weaving as it reduces the amount of space available to the horse to put its head out. Current studies suggest that this only serves to increase the horse's frustration and therefore does not help. In 2000, a study was carried out recording the difference in the reduction of weaving using two treatments: (A) social contact and (B) a mirror in the stable. This study lasted one week and the end result were that there was little significant difference between the two treatments. There was an 85% reduction when the horse had social contact, and a 77% reduction when using the stable mirror. However, given the time period, a novelty effect could not be ruled out. In 2002, there was a further study into the effectiveness of the mirror in reducing weaving, and other vice such as box walking, which took place over a larger period of time, and a range of different settings. This study was carried out over five weeks and all the horses involved had been known to weave for at least two years. The results were that there was a steady reduction in weaving, on average 97%, and also that other behaviours such as head nodding and head threats were also reduced. However, research into this has shown that the size and position of the mirror also matter. If the mirror is too large the horse may feel threatened.

The last topic to be examined is performance related vices. These are vices such as backing, balking, bucking, bolting, barn sour, ring sour, head tossing and prancing. There are again several ideas as to why the behaviour began and several theories on how to prevent the behaviour. Firstly, backing is when the horse backs up without a cue and often refuses to stop. There are numerous beliefs as to the cause of this such as disobedience, fear or improper training. The solution is generally agreed to be to work with the horse using basic schooling work. Then there is balking which is the term used to describe when the horse is resisting moving forward. This is an alarm reaction similar to shying but the horse shuts down or freezes and refuses to move. The causes may be fear, unclear cues asking the horse what is required of him, or asking the horse to perform beyond his ability. It can also be indicative of pain. The actual cause needs to be investigated before any plan for preventing the behaviour can be put in to practice. Also is this category is bolting, which is when the horse goes into a blind panic and runs from his perceived danger, however a bolting horse can not be stopped. He has no realisation to his surroundings other than as obstacles in his path to safety or to his rider. There is a quote: 'If you ever think you've stopped a bolting horse, you haven't. You've stopped one that has just finished bolting.' The causes for this also vary from fear, to unclear cues to again asking the horse to perform outside his ability. It is generally agreed that further training should be undertaken to prevent this. Also, bucking is included in the category of performance related vices. This is when the horse kicks out with his hind legs, and again there are many possible causes for this behaviour. These include unclear signals, playfulness, change in weather, excess energy due to lack of exercise, asking the horse to perform outside of its skill, fear, pain and desire to throw its rider. There are several methods of thwarting this behaviour, but they have varying degrees of success. Also included in this grouping are barn sour horses and ring sour horses. Barn sour is when the horse either won't leave the stable block or rushes to get back to it. Ring sour is when the horse displays aggressive behaviours or misbehaves in the ring, changes gaits without being asked to, heads for the centre of the arena or charges out the gate. The causes in the case of a barn sour horse are diverse and include being afraid to leave the safety of the barn and its inhabitants and being allowed or encouraged to return home at speed. Ring sour horses can be produced by fear, boredom, pain, anticipation of end of class, anticipation of announcer, or improper training. The cause needs to be investigated thoroughly and a training programme should then be implemented to deal with the cause. Prancing is another performance related abnormal behaviour which is when the horse exaggeratedly lifts its hooves. The causes again vary from pain to excitement to fear. Finally, there is head tossing which is when the horse throws its head up when being groomed, exercised, ridden or led. Once more there are a number of causes for this action. These include pain in the mouth from teeth or bit, improper training and in some cases the cause could be allergies. Once again, it is important to investigate and understand the cause before implementing any programme for treating this behaviour.

In conclusion, there are many differences of opinion in this diverse and vast subject of abnormal behaviours. In fact, there is a difference of opinion on what the correct term for these behaviours should be – abnormal behaviours, vices, stereotypies. There are many outlooks on how best to prevent and treat the affected horse. Regardless of which method is chosen, the cause should be thoroughly explored and understood before attempting any rehabilitation and the handler should be experienced and confident. It is also important to remember that many of these behaviours are a sign of pain and discomfort. In particular most of the performance related problems could be a sign of back pain, mouth pain or improperly fitted tack. Therefore, these should be the first things to be checked. Also, the weight of the rider can produce some of the performance related behaviours, as can a change in rider. A change in rider can mean a change in rider method or weight distribution. Whatever the problem and whatever the method chosen to help it, the horse and his welfare and satisfaction with his life should be the priority. Therefore, we shall end with two quotes:

A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities. ~ Nuno Oliveira

Brutality begins where skill ends. ~ Egon von Neindorff