Stable vices are caused by stress. A stressed horse will show stereotyped behavior more often than a horse that is comfortable in its own skin. Behaviors such as weaving and air-sucking are comforting and addictive to a horse. But when your horse has a stable vice, as an owner you naturally want your horse to stop doing this. Unlearning is actually not possible, due to the addictive nature of these behaviors. What you can do? Addressing the underlying reasons for the stress.
A stable vice, also known as ‘stereotypical behaviour’, arises when a horse experiences stress, often for a longer period of time. Performing the repetitive behavior, such as air sucking, ensures that the horse gets a little of the ‘happiness hormone’ endorphins in its blood. This makes the animal feel better and endorphins also have an anesthetic and calming effect. Unfortunately, this substance is also addictive. A horse will therefore be inclined to perform this behavior over and over again. Air sucking, weaving, stall walking, head shaking and teeth grinding are all forms of stable vices.
If you want to get your horse to stop the stereotyped behavior, you need to find out what caused it. If you know the cause of the development of stable vice, you may be able to eliminate it. There are also products for sale that prevent the horse from performing the stable vice, such as a band against air sucking or a weaving rack. The problem is that that doesn’t solve the problem. It can even lead to horses becoming even more frustrated and stressed…
Address the causes
Stable vices are caused by stress. So the way to reduce stable vices is to tackle the stress. The stress that leads to stable vices can usually be traced back to standing alone in a box for too many hours a day. The name ‘stable vice’ is not for nothing. Lack of social contact and free movement often cause the stress that ultimately leads to stereotyped behavior.
Causes of stable vices can be:
- Too little social contact
- Too little free movement,
- Poor quality or too little roughage,
- Stomach ache, muscle pain or other pain,
- Other stressors such as sleep deprivation, movement problems and wrong training.
When you address these causes, you address the stress. Your horse will then need to perform the stereotyped behavior less often to numb itself.
Research proves it
Several studies have been done on the amount of stress hormone in the manure or blood of horses housed in different ways. This showed that horses that have social contact and free movement produce less stress hormone. These horses are also easier to train, they respond more kindly to their trainer or caretaker and they show fewer stable vices.
Better management = less stress = less stable vices
Horses must always receive sufficient roughage, of good quality. They should not stand on an empty stomach for too long. Because horses continuously produce gastric juices, an empty stomach can lead to stomach ulcers, pain and stress. Good quality unpackaged hay is best suited for horses, available in unlimited quantities or at least in several portions per day. Enough fiber-rich roughage ensures that horses have to chew a lot and that is not only good for digestion, but also for the mental state of your horse. A horse naturally grazes 16 hours a day. Chewing is therefore a form of natural behavior and being able to perform that behavior leads to a happier, less stressed horse. And thus fewer stable vices. Therefore, slow feeders, hay nets or toys such as hay balls can also help to reduce or prevent stereotyped behavior.
Free movement and social contact
Contact with peers and being able to roam freely are very important to keep a horse mentally healthy. Free movement is of course good for the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints, but also for preventing and dissipating stress. Nosing and tickling with other horses is essential for equine mental health. They are herd animals for a reason! And did you know that when horses tickle each other on the withers, it also has a stress-reducing effect? In addition, horses in the herd confirm the bond with each other.
If you have your horse’s daily management in order, if he has sufficient free movement, good roughage and social contact with other horses, you should see stable vices a lot less often. But if for whatever reason your horse can’t go into the herd or is on box rest, supplements may be necessary to suppress the stress. The mineral magnesium helps to reduce stress and also ensures smoother muscles and a healthy nervous system. Horses regularly have a magnesium deficiency because this mineral is in low concentrations in our hay. It is best to feed magnesium in the form of a so-called ‘organic compound’ such as magnesium chelate. A liquid supplement is more absorbable than a powder. If your horse has enough magnesium in its ration, but is still a bit stressed, you can also opt for a herbal supplement against stress. This can be given for a short time prior to an exciting event such as a competition or a vet treatment. But you can also use such an extract in a lower dose for a longer period of time, for example when your horse is on box rest. An extract of monk’s pepper, chamomile and passion flower gives good results and is also doping-free.