Disruptive Compulsive Behaviors (Stereotypes) in Horses

  • Stereotypies are undesirable, repetitive patterns of behavior that may prevent an affected horse from eating and sleeping.
  • Stereotypies usually occur in adult horses (not foals) and may be learned from other horses.
  • If your horse exhibits these behaviors, evaluate your management program. Also, contact your veterinarian; changes in your horse's behavior may indicate pain and an underlying medical problem.

The Basics

While most horses do not have vices, some exhibit undesirable behaviors. Repetitive patterns of behavior known as stereotypies occur in many species. In horses, stereotypies usually occur in adult horses (not foals) and may be learned from other horses. Classic equine stereotypies include pacing, cribbing, and weaving.

Pacing, Cribbing, and Weaving

Pacing: An example of pacing is when a horse walks a fence line in a repetitive manner. The horse may be so focused on this activity that he does not eat and, therefore, loses weight.

Cribbing: An example of cribbing is when a horse bites a stall wall or fence and loudly inhales and exhales air.

Weaving: An example of weaving is when a horse stands at a stall door or pasture gate and rocks back and forth on front legs.

These behaviors are undesirable and may prevent an affected horse from eating and sleeping. Some horses develop these behaviors because of changes in management; however, research indicates a genetic component as well.

What to Do

If your horse begins to exhibit stereotypies, evaluate your management program. Have there been any recent changes, such as decreased exercise or pasture turnout, stall rest due to an injury, a change in stable mates or the pasture, or dietary changes? Horses fare better when they get adequate exercise (such as pasture turnout), are fed free-choice hay, and are not crowded (such as when a large herd is turned out in a small pasture).

It is very helpful to have a daily routine so that your horse can anticipate when he or she will eat and interact with pasture mates. Sometimes, horses need to be separated from the herd, such as stallions, for safe handling. You can help occupy your horse by ensuring that he or she has adequate pasture and/or free-choice hay and by providing environmental enrichment, such as horse-safe toys.

It is important to have your veterinarian perform a thorough physical examination on your horse. Changes in your horse's behavior may indicate pain and an underlying medical problem. Additional diagnostic tests may be necessary, and acquiring a 24-hour video of your horse may provide clues to his or her change in behavior.