Understanding Equine Behaviour And Its Impact On Welfare

The way your horse behaves is an indication of how well their environment is meeting their needs and also reflects their overall health and well-being’s. There are a range of stereotypical behaviors that are indicators of issues in the horse’s environment. They may reflect inadequate forage in the ration, lack of interaction with other horses or spending too long in the stable. Changing the horse feed used is one easy change that can be made

Read on as we explore this in more detail.

Common signs of behavioral issues in horses

There are a few different types of behavioral issues your horse may demonstrate that are indicative of problems. .

  • Crib biting: this is where horses bite  fences, stable doors or any convenient  surface they can try to chew. It is thought to reflect a lack of fibre or forage in the diet and so the horse looks for something else to chew. It is often associated with wind-sucking.
  • Wind sucking: Similar to crib biting, this behavior sees a horse arching its neck and, as the name suggests, sucking in air through its mouth. The horse often makes a gulping noise.
  • Weaving: The horse  shifts its weight from one foot to another and moves its head and neck from side to side, usually over the stable door, in a weaving motion. This is often thought to be an indication of the horse spending too long in the stable unable to roam as they would in their natural environment. Again it is often associated with box walking or pacing where the horse continually moves around their stable and doesn’t settle. This  behavior is also seen in zoo animals that are confined to much smaller spaces than they would be in their natural environment.
  • Head Tossing: The horse simply throws its head upwards and backwards repeatedly. It can be displayed in the stable but also when ridden which is particularly dangerous for the rider as they can be hit in the face by the horse’s

What causes stereotypical behavior in horses?

Noticing these behaviors in your horse is worrying as  it means their environment is compromising their welfare. The following are steps you should take to try to address these behavioral issues.

  1. Ask your vet to check your horse’s physical health: Some behavioral problems originate from a horse being in pain and it is important to address the underlying cause
  1. Increase opportunity for socialization: Horses are social creatures and are used to living in a herd. Try to increase your horse’s opportunity to interact with other horses. Even being able to see them when stabled can help. Placing a protected mirror in the stable can help some horses feel they have company.
  • Enrichment: There are a range of ways in which you can make being stabled more stimulating. Balls and toys are available for horses as well as slow feeders that make eating the forage ration more challenging and engaging for the horse. Hanging root vegetables around the stable and hiding them in the horse’s forage can also provide additional stimulation. . 
  • Diet: Your horse’s diet plays an important role in its lifestyle and welfare. Your horse’s nutritional needs will differ and should be adapted to the work they do, their age, and their bodyweight. Using a high fibre diet takes longer to eat and helps to keep the gut healthy. Some stereotypical behaviors like wind-sucking may be in response to pain in the digestive system such as gastric ulcers. These can often be improved by feeding more fibre.
  • Turn-out: If you can, you should make sure that you can turn your horse out as much as possible. This allows your horse to move freely and maintain their natural behaviors, whilst allowing them access to additional forage. If your horse is unable to be turned out, for example in bad weather, provide them with enrichment to keep them engaged.

Generally, if you notice your horse is displaying new, or worrying behaviors, this points to a deeper issue. If it’s not caused by a physical problem, you should consider your horse’s environment. Maintaining a routine with adequate nutrition, providing enrichment, and ensuring your horse’s environment meets its needs will reduce the chance of behavior having an impact on its welfare.