Stereotypic behaviours are often mentioned in horsey circles, but what exactly is a stereotypy and what can you do if you think your horse has one?
The definition of a stereotypy is “a behaviour that is repeated but has no apparent purpose or function.” Stereotypic behaviours are extremely common in domestic horses, and this is most likely due to our modern systems of equine management being poorly suited to their natural behaviour. As a result horses are often unable to express their normal behavioural repertoire which causes an increase in their stress levels and makes the development of a stereotypic behaviour more likely. Although stereotypic behaviours can develop in horses who are kept turned out with equine companions, it is much less likely than it is those kept in stables for long periods of time.
Stereotypic behaviours in horses can include:
- Tongue Lolling
- Box Walking/Fence Walking
- Self Mutilation
The difficulty of managing horses who display stereotypic behaviours is that once a stereotypy has developed it can be extremely difficult to eradicate it. It is extremely important to ‘nip the problem in the bud’ if you think that your horse is beginning to develop a stereotypy. Stereotypic behaviours lead to an increase in endorphins in the brain, which cause the horse to experience a feeling of well-being. The behaviour becomes a coping mechanism which they come to rely on when they are stressed, perhaps explaining why they are so difficult to ever stop completely. Frustration and boredom are both huge factors in the development of stereotypic behaviours, so it is our role as horse owners to try to minimise these in our horse’s lives.
What to do if you think your horse is beginning to develop a stereotypy?
As soon as you notice that your horse may be starting a repetitive behaviour it is essential to ask yourself – “Why”?
Often there are management factors that can be altered to reduce your horse’s stress levels and improve his general well-being and these things must be put into place to prevent a stereotypy from fully developing. Ensure that your horse has access to as much turn out as possible with a stable set of companions. It is also essential for horses, as trickle feeders, to have the opportunity to continue eating throughout both day and night. It is unlikely that one small haynet will be enough to keep your horse going throughout a whole night if he is stabled, and any prolonged period without forage to eat will greatly increase his stress levels and can also begin to cause him physical damage. It is essential that your horse is being fed an appropriate diet – horses are not designed to eat high-concentrate foods and should be kept on a forage based diet. A discussion with an independent equine nutritionist is highly recommended to ensure you are providing your horse with a suitable diet.
It is also important to check whether there are certain things at the yard where he is kept which are causing him to become more anxious, frustrated or stressed and if at all possible try to alter your horse’s management to prevent this.
It can sometimes be very difficult to isolate what it is that is causing your horse unnecessary stress and this is where a qualified equine behaviourist will be able to help you. It is our role as behaviourists to chunk down each part of your horse’s daily life to identify the factors which may be detrimental to your horse’s well-being, and then to assist you in overcoming these factors to help your horse to regain his equilibrium. As horse owners it can sometimes be difficult to see the wood for the trees, and this is why an outside influence can help you to realise how to make positive changes for your horse.
What not to do!
The most important thing NOT to do if your horse displays stereotypic behaviour is to use any equipment that prevents him from carrying out the behaviour. Despite huge recent advances in our scientific knowledge of stereotypic behaviours in horses there remains an array of products available on the market to prevent your horse from carrying out his stereotypic behaviour. These range from cribbing collars, to anti-weave grills and running electric wire across the top of wooden fence rails, amongst others. What these things do is prevent the behaviour, but they do not address the cause of the behaviour. As a result, by using one of these methods you are in fact adding to the stress that your horse is experiencing – by preventing him from being able to carry out his coping mechanism behaviour, which has likely started because of his already elevated stress levels. If a horse is physically prevented from carrying out his stereotypic behaviour, he is likely to modify the behaviour anyway and the problem is certainly not going to be solved. A weaver with an anti-weave grill on his stable for example is likely to learn that he can step back inside his stable, and can continue to weave there, often with much greater intensity than when he could do it over his stable door.
So what is so Funny About Stereotypies?
I don’t think I have ever come across someone at a zoo who thinks that watching an animal who is pacing back and forth across the front of their cage hour after hour is funny. Most of us these days are educated well enough to know that this type of behaviour is closely related to stress and few of us will go home from that zoo believing that the pacing animal was either ‘happy’ or having a good time. A huge number of us would find that image distressing and may find it difficult to watch at all. I know I would.
And yet, if I want to find a video of a horse demonstrating a stereotypic behaviour, all I have to search for on YouTube is ‘Funny Horse’ and I am sure to find some in the results. On many horse related Facebook pages it common to see videos of horses showing extreme stereotypic behaviour with a caption from the owner of something along the lines of “Look how funny my horse is”. Even when well-meaning and well educated horse people respond with information explaining the concern about stereotypic behaviours, they are often ousted by hundreds of responses telling them to lighten up, and that the horse “isn’t stressed – he’s clearly just having a good time!”
So what is it about equine stereotypies that make people want to believe that they are funny? Why are so many people unable to understand that their horse is displaying an extreme stress response, no different to the pacing animal in a zoo? Answers to that one on the back of a post card please!