‘Stable vice’ may sound quite innocent, but the associated behavior is certainly not. Cribbing, weaving, box walking are all the result of considerable stress and arise when a horse has been hindered in its natural behavior for too long. Usually because he has to stand alone in a box for too long. How do you prevent stable vices? And what if your horse already shows this kind of behavior?
A stable vice is a form of repetitive behavior that was once created to relieve stress. The horse gets a boost of endorphins in its blood by performing the repetitive behaviour, for example cribbing. That is a hormone that makes him feel better, this substance has an anesthetic and calming effect. Endorphins are also addictive. A horse will therefore be inclined to perform this behavior over and over again, to get another ‘shot’.
Which stable vices are there?
The best-known stable vice is cribbing. The horse takes in a very large gulp of air in one go, with the neck in a strange bent position. This behavior is also called “crib biting” when the horse puts its teeth on the food bowl or other object while sucking air. Cribbing is more common in horses that suffer from stomach problems, for example because they are without roughage for too long periods. Another well-known stable vice is weaving. The horse makes swinging movements with its body, it always moves from one leg to the other. If a horse does this for a long time, it can put a lot of strain on the joints and tendons in the legs. Hooves can also wear off faster and in serious cases the muscle structure of the horse can change. Box walking is a third well-known stable vice. The horse paces around in its stable, the same round and round, without looking up or down and often without eating or drinking. When horses do this for a long time, they can get all sweaty. This behavior is also very bad for joints, hooves, tendons and muscles. In addition to the three best-known stable vices, cribbing weaving and stall walking, there are also a number of other behaviors that you can characterize as stable vices. Think, for example, of head shaking, teeth grinding or going with the teeth along a bar of the box.
How do stable vices arise?
Stable vices are caused by stress. This often concerns stress that is directly caused by individual standing in the stable. Stable vices are mainly seen in horses that are in an individual box, with little or no contact with friends and little or no free movement. However, other parts of management can also contribute to the development of stable vices.
The causes of stable vices at a glance:
– Lack of social contact
– Lack of free movement
– Substandard feed policy, poor or little roughage, standing with an empty stomach for too long
– Pain from illness, stomach pain or muscle pain
– Other causes such as sleep deprivation, movement problems, wrong training…
Several scientific studies have been done on stable vices and stress. This clearly shows that stress is higher when the needs for social contact with other horses are not met. Stress is measured in these studies by determining the amount of cortisol – the stress hormone – in the blood or faeces. This clearly showed that horses in individual housing without contact with other horses experience significantly more stress. This leads to annoying behavior, also towards the owner, reduced trainability of a horse, poorer resistance and a lower learning capacity. Horses that have a better housing system are easier to train, respond more kindly to their trainer or caretaker and show less stereotyped behavior.
Unlearn stable vice?
A stable vice cannot be unlearned. That’s the bad news. You can, however, improve the conditions of a horse that has developed a stable vice. As a result, the animal will show this stereotyped behavior less and feel better about itself. Start with social contact and free movement. Every horse needs this. Not every horse owner is in the position to arrange this optimally, but there are always things you can do.
Feed and supplements
In addition, it is important to give your horse sufficient roughage. Unwrapped, good quality hay is best suited for this purpose. Of course in several portions per day or preferably even unlimited. A horse that can meet its natural need to ‘graze’ and chew throughout the day has much less stress. Reducing the amount of concentrates can also be a way to improve digestion and control stomach pain. Many leisure horses only need a vitamin and mineral balancer in addition to the roughage and do not need to receive any other concentrates. In addition, the mineral magnesium can help to reduce stress. Horses regularly have a shortage of this mineral because there is little of it in our Dutch hay. Magnesium is of great importance for the nervous system. Finally, you can use a special supplement against stress. A concentrated herbal extract is very suitable for this. Herbs such as chamomile, monk’s pepper and passion flower have a stress-reducing effect and are doping-free. Also great if you want to compete with your horse!
Kelly Yarnell, Carol Hall, Chris Royle, Susan L. Walker. Domesticated horses differ in their behavioural and physiological responses to isolated and group housing. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 143, 2015, Pages 51-57, ISSN 0031-9384,