Spinning and Twirling Behavior

Q. My 8-year-old Warmblood gelding loves to "spin" things--anything on a rope, whether a Jolly Ball, a milk jug, his neighbor's fly mask, the broom ... he'll spin them for hours. This is a video of him from a couple of years ago: www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5lyv37ye3E.

I thought he'd grow out of this phase, but he continues to twirl things. I heard a story on NPR (National Public Radio) about an autistic boy who loved to spin things. My horse is a bit of a character, and we call him dumb, but it is more like there's some wiring missing--things take a while to make it from brain to body (good when you are doing something like sheath cleaning--he doesn't react that fast!--but bad when trying to ride him). Maybe he is autistic?

Jill Chilton, Washougal, Wash.

A. What a great video! Thank you sharing the link. I have seen or known of several horses that spin similar "toys" in much the same manner as yours. Foals notoriously twirl "spinnable" objects. They start by shaking the toy, as they do with many objects they can pick up, and then seem to accidentally discover and then fixate on the rotational aspect. Once a foal has spun a given object like that, when he returns to the same toy he tends to immediately resume the spinning as if he picked it up with the intention of spinning.

Adult horses probably don't play with objects or do this spinning action as frequently as youngsters do. But based on how many times I have seen this behavior in adult horses over the years, my guess is that a fair percentage would. Now wouldn't that make another fun experiment?

Your thoughts about similarities with autism are also fascinating, but I don't know of anyone talking or writing about an equine condition similar to autism. One of the many characteristics of -autistic spectrum disorders is apparent fascination with all things rotational; so not just spinning objects or fixating on rotating objects, but also spinning of the body.

Your question reminds me of a particular case from many years ago: A veterinarian from Arizona sent me some great videos of a gelding that included segments in which the horse was spinning a classic rubber dog chew toy on a rope, almost exactly as in your video. The history was that at certain times of the day the gelding would play with and spin the toy for a few minutes, which would reliably lead to the horse doing the classic flank nipping which resulted in the horse spinning around and around in tight circles.

Concerning the slow reaction time of your horse, there is some evidence in the scientific literature for longer processing and reaction times characteristic of autism to be associated with anatomical differences in the neural architecture of the frontal lobe of the brain (Schmitz et al., 2007, Frontal anatomy and reaction time in autism, Neuroscience Letters, Jan 22, 2007;412(1):12-7). But behavior changes can result from other developmental conditions and injuries as well, not just autism.


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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