Stall Kicking Solutions

Q: My gelding is being evicted from his boarding barn if I can't get him to stop kicking the stall walls within the next month. For five years before coming to this barn, at two different places, he never kicked walls. Soon after arrival at this barn, when I started veterinary school in another state, his kicking started. He has done it off and on for two years. He will sometimes go several weeks without any kicking, and we hope he’s over it, and then it comes back for a few days at a time. Once the kicking persisted for about a month. We can't seem to figure out why he does it or how to stop it.

I saw an online article from a veterinarian in California on how to stop stall kicking. He said to move the horse to different stalls, which the barn owners have done a couple times when he was in a kicking phase and there was an open stall available. It made no difference. That veterinarian also suggested trying a larger stall. The stalls in this barn are already pretty big--about 12 by 16 feet--and there's no way to make any of them larger. Another suggestion in that article was to keep hay available all the time, which we also had done right away and have continued for more than a year and a half with no change. The author said if those things don't work, then the horse needs to have something to punish the kicking, so that he doesn't hurt himself. He suggested kicking chains, a shock collar, and an automatic water sprayer. Do you know if these things work with all or any horses?

My horse has hurt his foot a couple times when he was in a kicking spell, and that didn’t seem to stop the kicking, so I'm not sure something that hurts him will be effective. Another suggestion to keep the wall intact and prevent the horse from hurting himself was padding the walls with old tires behind stall mats. My horse's kicks can contact anywhere around the stall. The dents in the boards on the side walls, chips in the cinder blocks at the back, and dents in the metal stall front start low down near the floor and go as high as six feet or higher--so you would have to pad the walls from floor to nearly the ceiling, including the stall door. I don't think we can do that. What are your thoughts?
-- via e-mail

A: Kicking out in a stall with hind limb contact to the walls as you describe is almost always due to physical discomfort of some sort, especially when it comes and goes. And if the horse kicks randomly around the stall rather than only in one place, it is almost always because something is bothering the horse physically that leads to an outburst of discomfort or frustration. Finding out what is aggravating the horse physically might be challenging (and expensive), but in my experience this is the humane way to go.

An example of a common cause of kicking or stamping we see from time to time is skin irritation on the lower leg, such as mites under the heavy feathers at the pastern, or scratches (dermatitis, or skin inflammation, at the pastern). However, any number of physical problems can cause the horse to kick out as discomfort comes and goes. Other examples of physical problems we have found as the cause of intermittent kicking include musculoskeletal pain, gastric ulcers, urinary tract infections, strangulating lipomas (a fatty tumor on a stalk that "strangles" some part of the intestine), foot abscesses, inguinal hernias, kidney stones, bladder stones, enteroliths (intestinal stones), gas colic, and gastric impactions.

Ask your veterinarian to look thoroughly for a physical cause; this might require involving a team at a referral facility with advanced diagnostic imaging tools and an interest in exploring hard-to-find physical ailments.

You also asked about some punishment approaches--kicking chains, an automatic water squirter, and a remote-controlled shock collar. As a behaviorist, I would not recommend any of these punishment methods, even if a specialist diagnoses the kicking as most likely being a habit. Sometimes, but certainly not in most cases, well-timed punishment delivered with kicking chains or an automatic squirt gun can interrupt and reduce kicking, but if some sort of underlying physical discomfort is causing the kicking, punishment only add to the horse's stress. The chains often don’t stop the kicking and only add injury to the legs. When you remove the chains, the kicking often resumes. The water squirter is less likely to cause physical harm. In my opinion, shock collars are simply inhumane, even in skilled hands. It's just too difficult for most people to time the delivery of the shock appropriately, and some horses come unglued emotionally while trying to figure it out.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior published a position statement on punishing animals that explains the disadvantages. It is written with pets in mind, but was meant for and holds true for horses (see sidebar).

In the rare instance that an equine behavior specialist should diagnose wall kicking as a simple learned habit, get help from a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist or certified applied animal behaviorist with equine experience to figure out what is prompting and reinforcing the kicking. There are not many equine behavior specialists, but you can easily get good long-distance help these days using YouTube and e-mail.

One example of a common learned behavior is pawing with a front leg at the stall door or the wall near the feed tub whenever people are around. This is one of the most common behaviors that people accidentally teach their horses to do, and it is one of the easiest behaviors to extinguish once you understand and stop what you have been doing unknowingly to reinforce the action. In most cases, all you have to do is simply ignore the banging. Only give attention or feed when the horse is not banging.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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