Stable vices are bad habits of equines, especially horses. They usually develop as a result of being confined with insufficient exercise. Vices can develop out of boredom or hunger, excess energy, isolation, and occasionally may be learned by observing other horses who already have the habit. They are a management issue for an owner, and can have health consequences for the horse if not addressed.
Nearly all stable vices occur in animals kept full time in box stalls or other forms of confinement in a small area. If recognized before they become well established, they can be eliminated or minimized by providing increased daily exercise and, ideally, more turnout time in a paddock or pasture. Pastured animals rarely develop vices, other than occasional wood-chewing when they are bored or hungry. However, a horse that has well-established stable vices and other neurotic behaviors may continue to exhibit these problems for a while even with full-time turnout, though over the course of several weeks or months they will become much less severe. Vices may return if the rehabilitated horse is put back into a box stall.
Common stable vices include:
- Wood chewing: Gnawing on wood out of hunger or boredom. This habit can evolve into the more serious vice, Cribbing.
- Cribbing: When the equine grabs a board or other surface with its teeth, arches its neck, and sucks in air. This can harm the teeth and may lead to colic. Cribbing can be caused either by nervousness or boredom, it may release endorphins in the horse. Recent research suggests that cribbing increases salivation and may reduce stomach discomfort.
- Weaving: Rocking back and forth in a repetitive fashion, possibly a self-stimulating behavior. Weaving is often seen with particularly nervous animals, or those that do not get out of their stalls often enough. Problems with weaving can include weight loss and uneven hoof wear, unnatural stress on the legs and lameness.
- Wall kicking: Kicking the walls of its stall with hind legs. This raises the potential of damage both to the equine and to the barn. Usually this is caused by a lack of exercise and boredom. Wall-kicking is one habit that is often picked up by others in the barn once a single individual starts doing it.
- Biting: A nervous or anxious equine may reach out of its stall to bite at passers-by, human or animal. Box stall designs that keep the horse from reaching its head out prevent harm to other animals, but some horses may still attempt to bite a handler when the person enters the stall.
- Circling: Like weaving, this is a repetitive movement, only the individual circles compulsively in its stall rather than just rocking back and forth. This habit can also lead to weight loss and lameness.
- Pawing or digging: The equine may paw with its front feet. This can lead to abnormal hoof wear and lameness, and may also damage the flooring of the box stall. An equine that paws can dig a noticeable hole in a dirt-floored barn in a very short time.
- Masturbation: A male horse, either a stallion or a gelding, will use its abdominal muscles to rhythmically bounce its penis against its belly. Previously believed to be a vice caused by boredom, confinement, or discomfort masturbation by stallions and geldings is now understood to be a normal behavior. Furthermore, this behavior rarely results in ejaculation and does not impact fertility.
Other behaviors that arise from boredom or frustration may not be vices with health or safety consequences, but still present management challenges and there is little that can be done to stop them. These include destruction of buckets, mangers, and feed tubs; defecation in the manger or water bucket; dumping water buckets; sloshing feed in water and then scattering it on the ground,and so on.
There are stopgap "cures" that can be provided in the stall to keep a horse busy or out of trouble, including feeding of larger quantities of lower-quality food (so the animal spends more time eating and less time being bored), feeding more frequently, or cutting back on grain or other high-energy concentrates. Toys such as a ball or empty one-gallon plastic milk jug can be hung in the stall. Sometimes simply giving the animal a companion in the next stall, or even a smaller animal placed in the same stall, also helps a bored or nervous horse.
In extreme cases, a short term fix may include tying up the horse in its stall, putting on a "cribbing strap" (which prevents sucking in air), putting on a muzzle, or hobbling its feet. However, none of these practices solve the underlying problem, and the animal will resume its behavior as soon as the restraint is removed. The only long-term solution is to give the horse less time in the stall and, preferably, more free turnout time.
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- Price, Stephen D., et.al. The Whole Horse Catalog. Fireside; Rev Upd edition (1998) ISBN-10: 0684839954, ISBN-13: 978-0684839950
- Mills, Daniel. "Recent Advances in the Treatment of Equine Stereotypic Behaviour." Havemeyer Foundation. Web site accessed July 27, 2007 at http://www3.vet.upenn.edu/labs/equinebehavior//hvnwkshp/hv02/mills.htm
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