Cribbing, stall kicking, weaving, and any number of other self-destructive or barn-destructive behaviours have historically been categorized as ‘vices’. They were held to be transmissible from one affected horse to another by observation, and they made it more difficult to sell a horse. Some vices were connected with physical ailments, and for all these reasons they were often physically prevented. What is the modern take on ‘vices’, and how do we deal with them?
Unfortunately, the approach nowadays is usually the same. Your horse cribs? Buy a cribbing strap and fasten it tightly around his throat so he can’t (in theory) crib any more. Despite straps and surgeries, though, some horses continue to crib. If your horse is a weaver, the solution is simple: buy a set of weaving bars and affix them to his stall door, or hang weights and bottles from his ceiling so he can’t move without bumping into them. Such are the purported solutions.
An understanding of equine behaviour and the equid ethogram (a list of the behaviours horses engage in) shows flaws with each of the solutions to unwanted behaviours in the unridden horse, as well as with the name applied to them. First, let’s look at the label ‘vice’ and then the horse’s ethogram that relates to some of the behaviours.
Defining the Label
The definition of a vice is immoral or wicked behaviour. Immorality implies the conscious existence of a moral code. Wickedness implies the same, as well as forethought into what would be most likely to cause harm. Now, with the knowledge we have of the equine brain and how it processes information, we are certain that horses do not have the mental capabilities that we do. This means that they are unable to reason through something like a moral code (and are therefore incapable of immorality) or project an action with malice aforethought into the future (and are therefore incapable of wickedness).
If horses are then not capable of being vicious, what should we call this behaviour that can certainly seem to have thought and malice behind it? The proponents of Equitation Science have called them stereotypies, or repetitive, unwanted behaviours that are grouped into three categories: oral, self-multilation, and locomotory.
Finding the Motivation
Now, if the motivation behind the stereotypy is not malice, every scientist and horse person should be asking what the motivation is. The current thought is that each of the three categories of stereotypies are frustration behaviours, a method for the horse to reduce the pent-up energy inside from a certain need going unfulfilled (or potentially being over-filled). For example, a horse may crib to manifest the lack of long-stem forage it is receiving, a basic need of the horse’s gastrointestinal system. The horse may weave to show its need for the continuous movement it was created to have, or kick its stall as either a learned response to receive food or expressing frustration at large, infrequent meals such as are served at many barns, in contrast to the continuous flow of food the horse’s gut is designed for.
The above examples are just that — each horse’s situation is different, and a thorough behavioural investigation is warranted to find out exactly why a given horse performs a given stereotypy. However, it becomes clear from the above discussion of motivation that physically preventing an animal from telling its handlers in the only way it can that its welfare is being compromised in some way itself compromises welfare.
It is important to note that stereotypies can become ’emancipated,’ or freed from their original cause. For example, if a horse originally began weaving because of a lack of exercise, when the animal is finally allowed more exercise, it may be too late. For reasons yet unknown, some repetitive behaviours seem to be self-rewarding, or provide something of intrinsic value to the horse. Therefore, once the original cause of the behaviour is removed, the horse may continue to perform it. For this reason, it is imperative that when a new stereotypical behaviour is observed it is not ignored. Your vet may be able to refer you to a reputable equine behaviourist or a trainer well versed in equitation science so that the underlying cause may be discovered as quickly as possible.
Interestingly, many horses develop stereotypies as foals or during weaning. This is not surprising, due to the high levels of stress associated with weaning. Careful, ethologically sound management is essential at all times, but especially when in charge of young horses.