Q: I have a horse that is on stall rest while recovering from a fractured humerus (forearm bone). He has started becoming aggressive in his stall (biting and kicking). I don't want to reprimand him for fear he might reinjure himself, but I'm beginning to fear for my own safety when entering his stall. What can I do in this situation?

via e-mail

A: Without more specifics on the circumstances of your horse's aggressive behavior, and in particular what seems to trigger the biting and kicking responses, I can only give you general recommendations.

First, be sure your veterinarian has taken appropriate measures to evaluate your horse's pain. Biting and kicking are commonly seen with horses in pain. If you or your veterinarian are not sure if your horse's reactions are pain-related, send me a video clip. I can likely get a pretty good idea if he is in pain. Similarly, be sure the horse is free of gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcer discomfort can make horses crabby in ways that include kicking and biting, especially at feeding time.

Then, we all know that common side effects of confinement with little stimulation, plenty of calories, and little exercise for a period of time include the tendency to anticipate and respond ¬overenthusiastically to the infrequent, scheduled events that happen throughout the day. Horses on stall rest commonly have a tendency to become playfully interactive whenever someone enters the stall and to become food urgent with infrequent feedings. A horse in these conditions might become pushy and nippy when you enter to feed or water him or clean the stall, and since we go ahead and deliver the feed or react to the playfulness--and usually faster and faster as they get more enthusiastic--we inadvertently shape their behavior by reinforcing the food urgent or play behavior. Some of the general recommendations for reversing this include:

1. Diet and feeding schedule can have a huge impact on behavior. In general, the best strategy for avoiding behavior problems is to provide hay continuously and avoid grain meals if possible. If your horse requires a concentrated supplement, consult a nutritionist to select a product (such as some of the senior horse formulations) that is high in fiber and low in calories. If extra calories are needed, fat is usually better than carbohydrates for avoiding behavior problems.

2. If you supplement a horse's hay diet with grain, deliver it in small frequent meals. The supplement can be nested in small (tablespoon) amounts into hay flakes such that the horse has to root around to get the nibbles from time to time and the grain intake is spread out over time. The flakes can be placed into a large bin or in a feeder bag that will catch the dribbles of grain.

An alternate method for feeding frequent small grain meals that works well with a stall-bound horse who tends to get food aggressive is an automated timer-controlled grain dispenser, such as the automatic feeder manufactured by Unique Distributors. These feeders are set up to deliver a small grain meal every two to three hours. For most horses, every three hours around the clock works fairly well.

3. Another good way to introduce more foraging enrichment work and to spread out the ingestion time to that of a more natural foraging period (and at the same time discourage biting and protect caretakers) is to use a rubber and nylon grazing muzzle, such as the Best Friend.

4. Placing flakes of hay around the perimeter of the stall usually induces what I call "stall grazing." This gets the horse into the normal physiological pattern of walking, taking a couple bites, then taking a couple steps while eating. This movement is important to normal gut health. If your horse is in a cast, you might not want to encourage this much movement, but if he's at the point where he is still on stall rest but can walk comfortably, this will likely help dissipate some energy in a natural grazing and walking manner.

5. Try to get the horse out of the stall, even if it's simply moving him to a different stall while you clean his stall. You might hand-graze him for 15 minutes two to three times a day if no suitable small outdoor enclosure is available. Or you can assemble a small outdoor stall easily using round pen panels and move it from place to place for fresh grass and new scenery.

6. For additional enrichment you can place a companion animal in an adjacent or temporary stall. This can be a Miniature Horse, donkey, pony, goat, or even an animal such as a chicken. The companion does not necessarily have to be in the stall, as long as the stall wall is fairly open, allowing good visual contact along the common wall. A stall mirror, such as the Stable Buddy, works for some horses.

I was happy to read that you are reluctant to reprimand your horse. I agree it can lead to injuries. It's also not fair to an injured and confined horse. And if the behavior is play behavior due to pent-up energy and lack of stimulation and exercise, punishment can actually encourage it. Thus, figure out why he is biting and kicking and address the cause. In the meantime, use a grazing muzzle and wear protective personal gear so you can stay safe while trying to ignore the undesirable behavior.

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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