Stereotypies are most commonly referred to as vices. You will usually hear things like ‘My horse has stable vices as he kicks and paws at the stable door during feeding time and will bite anyone that comes near him.’
The reason why ‘vices’ is the incorrect term to use is that it is anthropomorphic (has a human characteristic) and it brings about a negative connotation, similarly to a person developing a bad habit such as biting your nails, when in actuality, a horse performs a stereotypy as a coping mechanism to a specific stimulus or environment.
Stereotypies are defined as stylized, repetitive, apparently functionless motor responses or sequences. In horses, equine stereotypies can either be locomotor (related to movement) or oral (relating to the mouth), and derive from unsatisfied physiological or psychological needs.
If we look at a typical day in the life of a feral (free-roaming) horse, they spend about 45% of their time feeding and grazing, 33% standing, 8% lying down, 7% moving around and 7% on other activities. Feeding is done by eating small amounts continuously and always moving around for food.
Now compare that to a domesticated horse who is stabled an average of 18 hours a day – they only spend about 29% of their day feeding, 24% standing, 21% lying down, 4% moving and 23% is left for other activities. It’s no wonder that stereotypies mainly occur with domesticated and stabled horses, as they have a greater amount of time available in the day to develop undesirable behaviours in order to cope in their captive environment.
It would be wrong to assume that only stabled horses develop stereotypies, as stereotypies may also occur in horses that are free-ranging due to unsatisfied needs or predisposed genetic conditions, however these cases are rare.
Generally we look at the following situations as being the trigger or link to the development of stereotypies: frustration, unavoidable stress or fear, and restraint and lack of stimulation.
It is very important to note that the first step in assessing any behavioural changes in your horse should be to rule out any medical causes for the behaviour. Pain is often expressed as behavioural problems, and can therefore be overlooked or mistaken. It’s important to make sure that you have had your horse fully checked by your vet, dentist and farrier in order to rule out pain and medical problems.
Let’s look at the two different types of equine stereotypies more closely:
Locomotor stereotypies arise from both physiological and psychological needs that affect a horse’s motivation for locomotor activities. Instances such as the need to be a part of the herd would affect a stabled horse that is prevented from joining the other horses due to confinement. Or a horse that is antagonized by his stable neighbour may be prevented from exercising normal aggressive behaviour due to being confined and unable to reach the neighbouring horse.
All these unfulfilled needs result in the development of locomotor stereotypies such as weaving, stall walking, pawing, and stall kicking, due to the horse’s inability to perform or complete the desired movement to satisfy that need.
Common oral stereotypies are cribbing or crib-biting, wind-sucking, wood chewing, and tongue and lip movements. Similarly to locomotor stereotypies, oral stereotypies also develop due to unfulfilled physiological and psychological needs. A stabled horse that lacks the appropriate stimulation, such as constant grazing, may develop a stereotypy due to this unfulfilled need.
Stereotypies are by no means the only equine behavioural problems that exist. They are merely the most common problems that develop in domesticated and stabled horses. It is therefore vital to know your horse’s normal behaviour in order to pick up when these abnormal behaviours develop.
Now, you may be thinking that your horse displays some of these behaviours, but that they don’t occur often, and your horse doesn’t seem to be hurting itself in any way, so why worry?
Stereotypies are exactly that, normal horse behaviours, that when prevented from being performed effectively, are displaced into abnormal behaviours. These stereotypies vary from the percentage of time a horse spends engaging in the activity, to the amount of energy the horse puts into that activity. They can therefore become harmful over time as the frustration or stimulus continues, the stereotypies become more frequent and can start to displace normal activities such as eating and resting.
A horse that stall walks occasionally without any harm to itself, can over time become even more frustrated, and begin to stall walk more frequently. This then leads to a horse that is losing body condition and is exhausted due to spending most of its time pacing in the stable instead of eating normally and resting.
When a stereotypy develops into a compulsive behaviour that the horse no longer has any control over, and performs automatically without thinking about it, they become very difficult to stop.
So, know what normal behaviour for your horse is, and if a stereotypy develops, try to determine why. This will be the key to modifying or stopping the undesirable behaviour by eliminating the environmental factors that are triggering the behaviour as quickly as possible.
Mason, G.I. (1991) ‘Stereotypies: a critical review’, Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge [Electronic], vol.41, pp. 1015-1037, Available: https://dspace.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/4622/Mason_1991_(Stereotypies-%20a%20critical_review).pdf?sequence=1, [6 Aug 2014].
Houpt, K.A. & McDonnell, S.M. (1993) ‘Equine Stereotypies’, The Compendium [Electronic], vol. 15, no. 9, pp. 1265-1271, Available: http://research.vet.upenn.edu/Portals/49/93equineU.pdf, [6 Aug 2014].
A Publication of the Center for Equine Health, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine (2007) ‘Understanding Equine behaviour Problems: Causes, Treatment and Prevention’, CEH Horse Report [Electronic], vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 1-12, Available: http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/ceh/docs/horsereport/pubs-HR25-3-bkm-sec.pdf, [6 Aug 2014].
Wickens, C. (2011) ‘Incorporating Behavior into Horse Management’, Delaware Horse Expo University of Delaware Cooperative Extension College of Agriculture & Natural Resources [Electronic], pp. 1-34, Available: http://extension.udel.edu/equine/files/2010/07/Horse-Behavior-Incorporating-Behavior-into-Horse-Management.pdf, [6 Aug 2014].