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Stereotypic Behaviors in Farm Horses

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The horses’ behavioral pattern developed according to the challenges faced in their evolutionary niche.  Under the captive environment most of these challenges have been removed. In captive system horses are managed well. They are protected from predators, provided sufficient food and protected from extreme climate conditions. But under the captive system horses could allow expression of highly motivated activities and these environmental challenges have been controlled. The psychological need to respond to environmental factors may still exist. So it may cause to behavioral responses that are not seen in the natural environment including apathy and unresponsiveness, hyper responsiveness and stereotypic behavior.

Stereotypic behavior is the repetitive, non-functioning behavior which commonly seen in stabled horses. Stereotypical behaviours often occur as a response to stress in their lives, as example a physical stress like gastric ulcers (pain related), or an environmental stress such as not being able to see other horses (anxiety). Horses can develop stereotypies because of fear, frustration, genetics, or due to a disorder of the nervous system. Behaviours that are reinforced and goal-directed are not stereotypies. For example, a horse repeatedly kicking the stable door at feed time suggests a learnt behaviour which is goal directed, as they attempt to hurry the arrival of their feed. 

Two factors such as social isolation and the feeding concentrates without access to high fiber forage are associated with the development of stereotypic behavior.

Influence of social isolation on stereotypic behavior

Some previous findings indicated that stereotypy was less common on large yards where horses have visual contact with a large number of other horses. Because in large yard increased yard activities compared with smaller yards and there is a better chance for social interaction with near neighbors than isolated horses.

Influence of feeding practices on stereotypic behavior

In captive horses are often fed high energy low fiber concentrates. But the horses which are under extensive management and naturally grazed often spending some part of the day for feeding and high energy feeds require little time to process. Feeding of high energy low fiber concentrated feeds without access to high fiber forage is associated with a higher incident of stereotypic activities. By providing forage around feeding times significantly reduces the incidence of stereotypic behavior.

Common stereotypical behaviours

Oral   

  • Crib Biting

This is when a horse is grasping a fixed object (usually a stable door or a fence) with their teeth and pulling back and also making a grunting noise as they gulp in air.

  • Wind Sucking

Wind sucking involves the horse arching its neck, opening their mouth and swallowing air, resulting in a gulping sound. It is similar to crib biting but does not involve the horse holding on to an object with their teeth.

  • Self-Mutilation 

Patterns of behaviour expressed by repeatedly nipping at various areas of the body, stomping, or kicking against an object.

Locomotive

  • Weaving

Standing still, the horse will move their weight from one leg to the other while                     swinging their head and neck from side to side. Commonly seen over a stable door, although some horses may weave in any environment. 

  • Box Walking 

Walking repeated circuits of their stable or pacing back and forth. Usually, a result of anxiety due to a feeling of restriction in the stable or separation from other horses.

  • Head Tossing

When the horse is repeatedly throwing their head in an upwards motion. Usually seen as a sign of frustration.

Impact of stereotypical behaviours to the horse

The development of stereotypical behaviours has the potential to negatively impact the horse’s physical health, for example: An increased risk of colic  (particularly with crib biting and wind sucking), Overdevelopment of particular muscles, Weight loss, as some would rather carry out their stereotypical behaviour than eat, Wearing down their teeth (crib biting), Increased strain on tendons and ligaments (weaving). 

Managing stereotypical behaviours

The modern-day management of horses is very different to how they evolved to live and can limit the horse’s ability to express natural behaviours such as, foraging, free exercise, mutual grooming or the experience of companionship in a social herd dynamic, potentially causing significant stress. It is how the horse copes with this stress which will determine the likelihood of a stereotypical behaviour developing. 

It is important to acknowledge that stereotypies do not always reflect the horse’s current living situation. These behaviours may initially develop as coping mechanisms when placed in an environment which does not meet the horse’s needs but, over time, the behaviour may develop into a habit which then continues to be displayed, even if they are moved into a suitable environment. 

Management as a foal and through the weaning process plays a huge part in the development of stereotypical behaviours, with many stereotypies being established during the first nine months of life. As example, foals that are stabled throughout the weaning process and isolated from equines of a similar age are much more likely to develop a stereotypical behaviour, and then those turned out in a herd environment. Horses that are restricted in their forage intake after weaning also have a greater risk of developing crib-biting than those that are not.  

Previous management of stereotypies focused physically stopping the behaviour through devices such as cribbing collars or anti-weave grills, and in some cases the complete isolation of the horse. These strategies do not address the root cause of the horse’s anxiety and can cause or exacerbate stress, potentially causing them to adapt their stereotypical behaviour or in some cases develop new ones.  

The most effective method of managing stereotypical behaviours, and in turn improving horse’s mental well-being and welfare, is through adapting their management. Focus on horse’s day-to-day routine with the aim of encouraging natural behaviours and reducing levels of anxiety, stress, and frustration.

References

Carroll, S, L. et al (2020) An online survey investigating perceived prevalence and treatment options for stereotypic behaviours in horses and undesirable behaviours associated with handling and riding. Equine Veterinary Education. 32(11), pp.71-81.

Dosi, MCM., et al (2020) Inducing weight loss in native ponies: is straw a viable alternative to hay? Veterinary Record 187, e60.

Hothersall, et al (2011). Undesired behaviour in horses: A review of their development, prevention, management and association with welfare. Equine Veterinary Education. 24(9). pp.479-485.

McBride, S. D. et al (2001) Management of horses showing stereotypic behaviour, owner perception and the implications for welfare

Roberts, K., et al. (2017). Causal factors of oral versus locomotor stereotypy in the horse. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour. 20, pp.37-43.

Rørvang, M, V et al (2018). Social Learning in Horses—Fact or Fiction? Frontiers Veterinary Science. 5, pp 212.

Waters, A, J. et al (2002) Factors influencing the development of stereotypic and redirected behaviours in young horses: findings of a four year prospective epidemiological study. Equine Veterinary Journal. 34(6), pp.572-9.

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