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Often when looking to buy a horse one of the many questions we ask the owners is; “Does the horse have any vices?”
There are 4 main types of stables vices (stereotypic behaviour in horses), box walking, weaving, cribbing, and windsucking.
These stable vices/ stereotypic behaviours illustrate a horse’s inability to cope with stresses and once established, may become a need in itself, a coping mechanism to dissipate stress and anxiety.
Stable vices generally arise due to poor management, for example when horses are kept in an unnatural environment and stabled for long periods of time with little, to no access to turnout or exercise. If they have a lack of socializing between other horses or insufficient amounts of roughage in their diet. Genetics can play a part, although not directly passed on, temperament and as a result, the ability to deal with stress may be passed on to foals, also abrupt or stressful weaning may be a trigger. Early findings indicate that the age at weaning and weaning technique are vital – up to 75% of potential horses that develop stereotypes show symptoms within one month of weaning.
Once established, stable vices are almost impossible to eliminate, especially if the behaviour has existed long term, as a result, it is preferable to prevent them in the first place. Also, the fact that stereotypic behaviour is how the horse copes with stress, then thinking about how we prevent it is vital. Considering alternate methods of general horse management would be much preferred to physical prevention like collars, grills, and various other methods used to prevent a stabled horse from performing any stereotypies.
Horses that ‘weave’ move their heads from side to side, whilst shifting the weight in their forelimbs and front feet. This behavior is sometimes just shown at times of excitement/ anxiousness like feed time or when the horse knows it’s about to be turned out, but it can also be a constant problem. If going to view a horse for sale, be aware of a stable that has a ‘V grill’ on the door which helps prevent the horse weaving (a horse sometimes will just weave behind the grill though), look out for abnormal wear on the front shoes or at the front of the box by the door. Long term, weaving may be detrimental to a horse’s forelimb joints and feet due to the constant wear and tear of shifting its weight back and forth. This would be something to keep in mind if purchasing a horse that weaves especially if an older horse that would have had extra years of wear and tear.
Is the repetitive pacing around a stable or box, it may be a sign of stress and frustration. Signs would be that the horses’ bed has a clear track around the outside where it has been repeatedly trampled. As horses often only go around in the same direction when box walking it is worth considering when buying a horse or if you own one the wear this may have had on the horse’s body and muscles. Regular physio treatment may be beneficial as a result. Also, due to the energy exerted if carried out for long periods the horse’s weight management may be difficult
A horse cribbing is seen as grasping a solid object between his front teeth, the crib biter with tense/ arch his neck, and emit a grunting sound. Wind sucking is very similar however, the horse does not grab an object with his teeth before sucking in air and making the grunting noise. Due to performing the stereotype releasing painkilling and pleasure hormones to the horse, it is seen as an addiction, and therefore very difficult to stop once established. This stereotype is often triggered at feed time, so if viewing a horse to buy giving it a small quantity of hard feed may reveal the behavior, also signs on the top of the stable door for wear and abnormal wear on the horses’ front teeth may all be indicators. Although there is little evidence showing that it is a copied behavior some yard owners do not want crib biters or wind suckers on their yard so this is something that you would want to check.
Many owners of horses that have stereotypic behaviours/ stable vices (cribbing/weaving/windsucking) find that they are quick thinkers and fast learners and do their jobs very well. Rather than thinking about it as an unwanted vice, think of the potential performance attributes it could bring. Also, for someone that is on a budget when buying a horse, stable vices often de-value a horse significantly, therefore, you could potentially find yourself a brilliant horse at a great price if you are willing to work out the best management routine for your horse or pony.
This is something you would want to add to the list of questions you ask when searching for a horse, check out the ‘How to best prepare when buying horses?‘ blog for other useful information.