The horse evolved as a gregarious, grazing nomad with keen senses and highly developed reflexes. These characteristics are responsible for sending a reining horse to the winner’s circle as well as sending a panic-stricken horse through a wire fence or causing a stressed horse to eat his stall. In humans, stereotypies are typical symptoms of autism and other brain disorders and are characterized by repetitive, ritualistic acts, often in apparently meaningless patterns. In both humans and animals, they are believed to be a form of coping mechanism – the brain’s attempt to manage stress.

As we find out more and more about the normal habits of horses, it becomes clear that we are not adequately addressing the needs of some of our domestic horses.

Most experts now agree that confining horses to stalls and feeding them concentrated feeds rather than all-forage diets on a human eating schedule, rather than on a natural grazing schedule (roughly 30 – 60 minute cycles, 24/7) increases the risk of developing stereotypies. Social stresses (herd changes, weaning, traveling etc.) and lack of exercise are also culprits. It is now widely accepted that there is a substantial genetic predisposition as work as well, explaining why some horses in the same environment crib or weave while others don’t. Cribbing, in particular, has been widely researched with regard to whether it is a learned behaviour or not. In one 2009 survey, 49% of owners thought cribbing was a learned behaviour, while only 1% of horses started cribbing after exposure to another cribber. “Don’t call it a vice,” states Julia D. Albright, MA, DVM of Cornell University. “These horses have a true neurologic pathology, comparable to obsessive compulsive behaviours in humans.” She adds, “We need to stop physically and verbally punishing, shocking, and isolating them.”

Recent research also seems to point to certain kinds of performance disciplines creating different kinds of stress. A 2009 French study compared dressage, eventing, jumping and vaulting horses at the École Nationale d’Equitation at Saumur. Notably, all 76 horses in the study were stalled for 23 hours (ridden for one hour) and a full 65 of them had stereotypies. The most severe stereotypies were found in the dressage horses and the authors attributed this to the physical and emotional restraint required for dressage performance and speculated that “conflicting signals given by the rider (urge forward with legs and keep restraining through the bit) may lead the horse to frustration and neurosis.” The vaulting horses had the fewest stereotypies and also only the “minor types,” such as tongue play and repetitive licking, which they attributed to bit resistance, due to the sidereins used in their work.

Since it is not possible to simply return horses to their natural state, what is a horse owner to do? Experts recommend stabling as little as possible and feeding a diet high in forage. Frequent feedings, small-mesh nets and other devices can increase foraging time. Once a horse has exhibited a stereotypy, particularly a locomotor stereotypy such as weaving or stall walking, putting the horse out to pasture 24/7 usually reduces the behaviour significantly. Cribbing seems to be less “curable” but increased turnout, an all-forage diet and increased social contact have helped in many cases.

Finally, the authors of the French study raised issues concerning emotional and psychological welfare that they believe also have an impact on stereotypies. Physical and emotional constraints, and the negative consequences of some training may lead to physical and behavioural resistances, open conflicts and tensions during the work sessions with horses “asked to suppress emotional reactions from their early stages of work on…Negative experiences linked to training may add to the effects of management style and lead to chronic states where horses “switch off”, becoming unresponsive and apathetic…Abnormal repetitive behaviour, or stereotypic behaviour, is considered as clearly associated with poor welfare and is suggested to be a way for animals to cope with an unfavourable stress-inducing environment.” Do we really need a study, however, to tell us that our horses need emotional and psychological fulfillment to be mentally sound? I hope not.

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