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Equine behavioral problems and suggested remedies

Equine Behavioral Problems And Suggested Remedies

Equine behavior is an evolving science. There’s been an increased interest from researchers, especially from Europe and Australia, in how we train and manage equine in relation to their behavior. Many behavioral problems such as cribbing (wind sucking), stall weaving, or flank biting are vices, or the more current term, stereotypies that man has created based on observation. A stereotypy is an abnormal behavior that serves no function or purpose to an animal. 

Equine are designed to graze for long periods of time, such as 16-17 hours per day.  Due to the increase in urban growth, specific restraints, and jobs we expect horses to perform, we have begun to limit the amount of time a horse spends outside including the amount of time they spend “grazing” or consuming forage. Most horses are on a strict feeding schedule that revolves around help, management, and people’s jobs therefore the animal that is use to grazing for a long period of time is now restricted to consuming one, or possibly two, large meals twice a day at very specific times.  Feeding horses on a strict routine often increases anxiety and unwanted behaviors like pawing or walking continuously in their stall. Then we reward the horses for such behavior by giving them food. Essentially, we have taught our horses if they paw they will be fed. However, there is no simple answer for the change in how we keep horses.  Most owners do not have access to enough land enabling continuous grazing. However, if they did, it is likely they would still keep their horses up at some point to observe them or to keep them in shape for competition. 

In many European stables, and even some race horse farms, horses are fed three to four times throughout the day to try and decrease stereotypies such as cribbing, stall walking or even pawing for a meal.  All diets are also weighed out so the horse is not being over or under fed which can also lead to behavioral problems. Keeping in mind not all horses display abnormal behavior but those that do are generally derived from having limited turn out, limited fiber sources, and may have stressful or demanding work out regimes. Most of today’s performance horses at some point in their career will likely develop ulcers due to exercising at a trot or canter for most of their exercise regime.  Gastric Ulcers can be very painful for horses and also create some of the unwanted behaviors such as cribbing, agitation and stall walking.  Granted proactive horsemen will allow horses to have turn out time.

Some horsemen will even supply an anxious or nervous horse with a companion animal to decrease anxiety such as a goat or miniature donkey.  This is seen quite often for horses that are on the road traveling and in new environments for most of the year.  Other conditions that may lead to abnormal behavior are related directly to the horse’s health.  A good horseman will recognize abnormal behavior in a timely manner, such as: a horse lying down constantly, looking at its flanks, not eating its food, consuming little to no water, or a decrease in the horse’s performance.  A leading cause in decreased performance, and abnormal behavior, in performance horses is usually linked with the high incidence of gastric ulcers.  Many horsemen will have their horses scoped for ulcers and or treat with a calcium bicarbonate product; assuming their horse already has ulcers. Many owners or trainers will allow horses to consume forages higher in calcium or will supply more hay to stabled horses, which has the benefit of making them less susceptible to developing gastric ulcers. 

Other factors that can contribute to ill behavior are related to equipment that horses are subjected to and how that equipment is used.  Much research has gone into measuring pressure applied to a horse’s back in relation to how a rider sits on it, where weight is or isn’t being distributed, as well as how the saddle fits.   A horse with a sore back may develop habits such as becoming “cold back” meaning it maybe hard to get on at first, and even raise its back and offer to buck.  If horses are in enough pain they may bite at the rider as they go to mount and or even throw them off when riding.  A more stoic horse will still continue to perform under pain but eventually its performance may decrease and even develop abnormalities within its gaits to overcome pain. 

Another area where a horse may experience pain from equipment being improperly used is from the bit and bridle. Problems that can arise from improper use of a bridle and bit include: the headstall and bit don’t properly fit,  the curb strap/chain is adjusted to tight, or the bit is to large or small for the horse’s mouth.  When such problems arise with the headstall not properly fitting, a horse maybe more reluctant to let one bridle him and toss his head way in the air.  He may also refuse to open his mouth.  In severe cases the horse may even rear up and if he learns to rear to avoid being bridled, or when bridled, and it causes the person to get off, then the horse has learned to rear up to escape the situation.  Other behavioral problems with bridling a horse maybe due to a dental condition such as a young horse that needs to have the caps removed from its teeth or the horse may have teeth called wolf teeth. Horses that have wolf teeth, which lie in the bars of the horse’s mouth where the bit should comfortable sit, would cause a horse to rear and resist pressure being placed on its mouth.  A horse may also exhibit abnormal or resistant behavior when being ridden due to an inexperience rider giving mixed cues or never releasing pressure being applied with their hands and or legs.

Equine behavior is essential to proper training, riding, and care of your horse. Part of being a responsible horseman is being able to recognize the signs of a horse displaying abnormal behavior.  Behavioral problems can be as serious as life threatening colic to something as simply as loosing the curb strap by one notch. Listen to what your horse is telling you and try to respond. Most equine behavioral problems can be solved by adequate turn out, supplying enough forage several times per day, using equipment that fits your horse and knowing how to use the equipment.

McLean-Amy

Dr. Amy McLean

EQUINE LECTURER AND EQUINE EXTENSION SPECIALIST, UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING

 

This article is sponsored by Tom Balding Bits and Spurs (http://www.tombalding.com). All photos are provided by Tom Balding Bits and Spurs and are intended for the sole use in this article.

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