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Victims of a Vice
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Victims of a Vice

I remember years ago, my supervisor at the time tying up a big bay horse to a tie ring, and walking away. As it was my tea break, I sat and watched. After a few seconds of watching, the horse started moving around, repositioning himself side-on to the wall, before he started moving his head from side to side, eventually making a figure of eight motion, while shifting his weight from one fore leg to the other.

At the time I had never seen a horse do something so strange so out of natural curiosity, I asked what he was doing; the casual response was 'he's dancing'. Have you ever walked past a horse, especially a stabled horse, behaving in a certain way and thought to yourself 'what is the horse doing' and 'why is he doing that'?

Commonly known as 'stable vices', they are deemed as 'undesirable' behaviors exhibited by horses as a result of the ideals projected on to them by humans; restricted movement by inadequate turnout and over-stabling, lack of socialization, and feed restrictions are all contributing factors.

You may of come across stereotypes before, with the more common being as follows:

  • Weaving: Repetitive movement of the head and neck in a mechanical and rhythmic way, sometimes moving from one fore leg the other in sync.
  • Cribbing: Gripping a surface edge with the teeth, arching the neck and sucking in air, usually accompanied with a grunting sound.
  • Wind-sucking: Similar to cribbing, though the horse does not need to grip a surface to suck in air.
  • Box Walking: Repetitive pacing around the stable, often leaving a worn trail, especially through bedding.

Although personally, I see them more as signs of frustration and agitation, aggressive behavior, tongue rolling, biting and pawing are also classed as stereotypical behaviors.

Stereotypical behaviors are described as a behavior that serves no obvious goal or function, and can be seen in all manner of species, from tigers at the zoo, to dogs in a kennel. Personally, I do not believe this definition to be accurate. Yes, they may not seem to have an obvious goal to the human eye, but remember we need to start to see more through the eyes of the horse. To the horse, these behaviors are coping strategies caused by being confined to an unnatural environment, and depending on severity, can ultimately sometimes raise welfare concerns. Studies have suggested that these vices are exaggerations of some of a horses most basic instincts - movement, social grooming and grazing.

What goes on inside the body, of course, plays a big part in behavior. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; a rewarding substance which is highly reinforcing, and is linked to movement. Increased stimulation of this neurotransmitter trigger exaggerated behaviors that are basic.

High cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in horses increase beta endorphins levels (another neurotransmitter released when under stress), thus creating dopamine sensitivity, which in turn lowers the amount of stimulation needed for a horse to develop a stereotype. What is the end result? A high level of endorphins creates a pleasurable response to the behavior being exhibited, which will be resorted to at the slightest feeling of agitation or anxiety, therefore, a coping strategy.

Not all horses develop stereotypical behaviors. Some are more susceptible than others, and they can occur in any age as a result of poor management. When these behaviors start to occur in younger horses, for example a foal or yearling, as a result of stressful and incorrect weaning, the central nervous system develops differently, therefore becoming 'hard-wired'.

Why are these behaviors deemed so 'undesirable?'. Stress is never good. With people, just running late for a meeting or being stuck in traffic to pick up the kids, is a sure way to elevate those levels. With a horse, they do what they can and adapt to survive. These behaviors are their way of coping but further down the line, health issues can develop. Wearing of the incisors, gastric ulcers, joint and mobility issues and psychological problems can develop.

The way humans keep horses are not always ideal. Horses are naturally social animals that crave the interaction between individuals. They live a life free of confinement and can graze up to 20 hours a day. Unfortunately, the luxury is not always there to have them live in as natural state as possible. Also not everyone wants this for their horses, whether the weather be too wet for turn out, a lack of time, or too difficult to keep them clean. This is when humans need to take responsibility for what we inflict upon them, not by turning a blind eye, masking the problem, and branding such behaviors as vices or stereotypes. They are coping strategies, a result of being victims of the confinement humans put in place. We need to set aside our own superficial ideals and put the very basic needs of the horse first. After all, we had no right to take that away.

Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.

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