VICE SQUAD – Is the horse's behaviour a direct result of the psychological pressure we subject them too?

VICE SQUAD - STOP AND THINK! Is the horse's behaviour a direct result of the psychological pressure we subject them too?

So what is abnormal?

There are many types of abnormal behaviour seen in stabled horses. They include: weaving, crib-biting, wind sucking, box walking, persistently pawing the ground, nodding or shaking of the head, over drinking and self mutilation such as chewing the own tail. As long as the behaviour is repeated and without purpose, it is classed as abnormal.
All of the above actions we choose to call ‘vices’, if we look at the definition in a dictionary, the term is described as an immoral, wicked or evil habit. By using this word to describe a horse’s abnormal behaviour, we as owners and riders are implying that it is the horse that is at fault and these actions are caused by a flaw in his character. This begs the question, why don’t we as owners stop to think that just maybe this behaviour is a direct result of the psychological pressure we subject our horses to?
  • Invading your horse’s space
  • Over feeding a naturally energetic horse.
  • Constantly constraining him in a stable without companionship and toys.
  • Feeding him two or three times a day, depriving him the ability to graze almost all of his waking hours.
  • Shutting your horse in a stable, curbs his freedom so he can not satisfy his natural curiosity. You take the opportunity of him to investigate all that he sees and hears so he never becomes confident in his surroundings.
  • Taking your horse to unfamiliar surrounds and environments like competitions and shows without proper habituation.
  • Not improving your riding skills or using them well at all times – heavy hands, a poor seat and fear of letting your horse go too fast all contribute to his fear and confusion.
Such pressures cause your horse to become frustrated, bored and fearful. Confined in his stable without companionship, he has no way of dealing with his stress and will resort to acting out displaced behaviours. These repeated actions cause his brain to release a hormone which creates a chemical called cortisol in his blood. Stress has an impact on his welfare and immune system, affecting his temperature, eating, drinking and even his sexual habits.

A stressed horse’s brain also produces endorphins, natural pain killers, to help his body cope. When you consider that the ultimate release of endorphins occurs when an animal is killed, to prevent him feeling pain, you may begin to realize the level of stress such a horse is under.

Each horse has a different threshold depending on his genes, breed, previous experiences and his own individual characteristics. So just because one horse seems to cope with his modern lifestyle, don’t assume that every horse can.

If your horse shows signs of abnormal behaviour, remember it is not just an annoying habit or problem you can control by simply introducing a weaving grill or cribbing collar. In fact, by preventing your horse acting out his behaviour, you could be putting him under further stress.

Abnormal behaviour means your horse is suffering, the same way as a caged lion in a zoo. His actions can be symptoms of clinical depression, suffering from poor welfare and such mental stress will have an impact on his immune system, weight and general condition.  

What’s the answer?

The only way to stop your horse’s abnormal behaviour is to reduce his stress levels by giving him a more natural lifestyle. Veterinary treatment may help and complimentary medicine can also be effective in treating stress. But these methods are only beneficial if you are also prepared to drastically alter his routine. Above all, try to see your horse’s life through his eyes to understand the causes of his stress.
pawing ground

Don’t confuse your horse’s natural reactions with ‘vices’

Many people regard actions such as bolting, napping and evasion as ‘vices’ but this behaviour is not abnormal for your horse, however inconvenient for you. Your horse is following his natural instincts when confronted with a situation that makes him feel uncomfortable, for him this beahviour is normal.
  • A bolting horse – is employing his flight instinct after being startled or panicked.
  • A horse who naps – Is following his heard instinct. He is not confident either in himself or his rider and will try to return to his safety zone, the company of his equine companions.
  • Showing resistance of the bit or refusing to load – He is fearful of the situation and his instinct tells him to use evasive tactics to escape.
  • Once you understand that your horse acting normally in a stressful situation, you can take steps to avoid such behaviour.
Remember, you must make the situations more acceptable rather than change your horse. For example in all three cases above, the horse needs to improve his levels of confidence, both in himself and his surrounds.

1. A more natural lifestyle will help him feel more relaxed.

2. Allowing him the time and patience to become habituated to a situation (such as loading) will overcome his fear. Take everything one-step at a time and don’t make any unfair demands on him.

3. Consistent and confident handling and riding will increase his confidence in you. 
More great horse behaviour advice and tips Read more.