Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home

Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. A couple of "horsey" friends and I were trying to figure out why some of the facilities where we have boarded seem to really be upsetting to our horses. Has any research been done regarding the "likes and dislikes" of horses regarding their homes? I have owned my horse for almost 13 years (since he was two). In that time, we have lived/boarded in three different states and numerous boarding facilities. Some places were as small as 10 stalls, some as large as 60-plus.

Interestingly, there were a couple of smaller barns where my horse seemed very uncomfortable. These were quite nice facilities--spacious stalls, indoor arena. Yet my usually level-headed guy would "lose" it in these indoor arenas. He would become spookier than usual with things that would not ordinarily cause a big disruption. A friend's horse (an aged gelding) got so nervous at one of the barns where we were stabled that he started to "stall walk." He actually got some type of psoriasis (skin disease) and began rubbing so badly that hair came off. This was completely abnormal for this bomb-proof and mellow old guy.

I could go on, but we never did figure out what the problems were and eventually moved to another barn. Guess what? All of the unusual behavior ceased. No more spooking, stall walking, or psoriasis! Make any sense? Nothing changed as far as diet, etc. We came to the conclusion that there are some barns that some horses just are not comfortable in, but why?

Linda, Ohio

A. What a great question about what is very likely a real phenomenon. I don't know of any research addressing the issue. I have seen several cases like you describe, and we rarely figure out what might be bothering a particular horse on a particular farm. Quite often the most practical approach is just to move the horse back to where it was last comfortable, or to a similar setting. Since that often works, we usually leave it at that. So there always is the chance that something else might have been going on that spontaneously recovered coincidentally with the move. Nonetheless, here are some of the things we think about when it is not possible or practical to move a horse which appears to be unhappy in a new environment. I would love to hear from others.

Diet--Everything a horse eats has potential to affect behavior. The particular hay, the grain, and various additives, and certainly any of the ever-growing number of horse feed supplements can affect temperament and behavior. While we often think our horse is getting all the same diet when he moves, there likely are some differences. Many of the horses I see with these problems are fed multiple supplements. There are so many ingredients that we can't even begin to systematically evaluate them. Often many of the supplements have been initiated in an effort to alleviate the problem. One current case is supplemented with 70-some different ingredients. My behavioral nutritionist colleagues just throw up their hands.

Sometimes we have concluded that it was the way a horse was fed that was problematic. Examples have been simple social competition and intimidation among horses in group feeding situations. Another simple problem can be that some horses appear to dislike eating from high hay racks, and will seem to eat less than when the hay is fed at floor level.

Electricity--Electric fencing and stray electricity around barns are not well studied in relation to horses. We have seen instances where electricity, either stray electricity or electric fencing, was suspected of causing spookiness in previously calm horses. I also sometimes wonder about equipment sounds that perhaps people don't hear that might annoy a horse.

Horse social conditions--We really underestimate the impact of social interactions among horses on their behavior. We always expect everyone to fit in wherever we decide. Often they don't.

Management history--Although it's probably pretty rare, some horses seem to have difficulty moving from one particular type of management to another. For example, some horses which have been on a very rigid feeding and turn-out schedule might have difficulty adjusting to a less-rigid schedule. Some seem to thrive on variety, while others do better with a more rigid schedule.

Human-animal interaction style--There are research findings in cattle and pigs that the herdsman's behavior and manner can affect all sorts of physiological and behavioral measures of well-being. One could argue that horses might be at even greater risk of such effects. Some barns seem to bring out problem behavior, and others tend to be very horse-friendly in this regard. I have a hard time being objective on this issue, because some barns drive me crazy, and I can't help but anthropomorphize.

Neglect or abuse--It's probably not as common as some people accuse, but we have known horses with behavior and health problems at new facilities where eventually we decided that inadequate care likely was related to the problem. For example, underfeeding or wildly erratic feeding schedules (large amounts one day, nothing for several days) often come up in such scenarios. Underfed horses might experience a phase of feeding-related aggression and/or nervousness and hyperactivity. They might begin to lunge, pin their ears, or turn and try to kick the feed bucket out of your hands. They might appear anxious when someone enters the barn--maybe start pacing or weaving at feeding time.

In one case like this, the barn folks explained that the horse had started to pace while they were feeding down the aisle. When they got to her stall, they "had to stand outside with the feed bucket and get after her to stop circling the stall." She would get mad and lunge at the door. So then they "had to get into her till she stopped, and then keep her feed back for a couple days." At each feeding time, they would "show her the feed and let her know she wasn't getting any this time." She never would quiet down, so after a couple days, they would chuck the bucket and feed over the top of the stall door, "just outa kindness." My notes from this owner's initial call read exactly "12-year-old mare, same owner for eight years, quiet, steady, sensible, good eater, always carried a little too much weight, moved three months ago, OK for a couple weeks, settling in, then got more nervous, started stall walking, losing weight, now thin. Beautiful new barn, clean, big stalls, excellent care, huge indoor arena, professional trainer on-site, best horses. Getting worse by the week, three vet calls, blood work, can't find anything, barn getting tired of us, vet thinks it might be in her head, or maybe ulcers, are you an animal psychic?"

Whether or not we'll ever figure out for sure what goes wrong with a particular horse in a particular barn, I think you're right that a good match usually can be found. A little joke here is that we can cure most behavior problems with a little "tincture of E-field." That's because some of these cases of nervous, or wasting, or spooking, or stall-walking horses with histories like you describe have ended up being donated to our behavior teaching herd. Upon arrival they often hang-out in a pasture we call E-field. Within a couple weeks, the horses often are back to a state of normal contentment. They are gaining weight, looking sleek and shiny, and getting along with herd mates. Sometimes students only get to read about the "unhappy" horse.

E-field is nothing special. No hay, no grain, no supplements, no feeding schedule, no stalls, no indoor arena, no electricity, and often no close human-animal interaction for days. Just good grass, water, natural shade, and shelter.

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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