Stall Walking

Q:I have a yearling Thoroughbred that constantly circumnavigates his stall. This is causing an uneven wear pattern on his hooves. How do I stop him from doing this? We do not want to put him in a standing stall, and have tried hanging a tire in the stall to no avail. He is outside when the weather is good and is quite happy there.

A:Stall walking is commonly thought of as being a problem brought on by boredom. However, evidence has shown that this behavior is caused more by confinement, lack of interaction with other horses, and the lack of grazing. These two behaviors are basic to horses, and it is when they are deprived of these very basic equine needs that stall walking and weaving generally show up.

Stall walking can be further broken down into two categories. The first one being frantic stall walking, where the horse is walking around rapidly and probably defecating. This indicates that the horse is extremely upset, commonly caused by separation. Separation anxiety is characterized by the horse neighing, which is an isolation call.

The second type of stall walking is classified as a stereotypic behavior. This is generally a response to a poor environment, which some horses can cope with and others can't. This is seen with the horse walking slowly around the stall leaving a worn-down trail.

When a horse stands still in his stall and walks in place, which is usually only done when the horse can't stall walk, it is known as weaving. It has been found that some horses will weave in front of bars in the stall. It appears that weaving in front of the bars offers some sort of visual stimulation that is pleasing to the horse.

These behaviors generally do no harm to the horse. However, the horse may excessively wear the floor of the stall or may wear his shoes or hooves abnormally. If any limb problems arise from these stable behaviors, or if the behaviors begin to affect his performance, then the best prevention is to put the horse out to pasture. This will usually stop the behaviors because it increases his eating time, and usually his time with other horses.

Other ways to prevent stall walking and weaving are to offer the horse more than one kind of roughage. For example, feed the horse timothy hay along with another type of roughage such as beet pulp. Also, feed him twice a day, or, even better, more than three times a day; and instead of shavings as bedding, use straw. Keep the horse in sight of other horses. This has been shown statistically to help the horse. The companionship provided by just seeing other horses may be enough to get the stall walker or weaver to quit. If not, a companion animal such as a pony or goat may help. This is an old-fashioned treatment, but in some cases it works. Medications that treat obsessive/compulsive behaviors are available. For a horse, however, they would be astronomically expensive.

For the most part, stall walking and weaving cause no harm to the horse, and if he doesn't destroy the stall floor or his feet, then you may want to consider just leaving him alone. There are some horses which only exhibit these behaviors when people are around. So the horse may not be stall walking or weaving except when you are present. Other horses will only stall walk when they become anxious. For example, some show horses will stall walk after you have braided their manes because they know it means they are going to perform the next day and they become anxious. In these horses, stall walking may be prevented by braiding their manes randomly at different times, not just before a show, so that the horse can't associate it with performing.

No one has been able to show that this behavior is learned, and it is common to find that in a barn of 20 horses, only one will stall walk or weave, and the horses on either side of him do not exhibit the behavior. This behavior does tend to run in families, so if a sibling or parent stall walks or weaves, then keep an eye out for it because it is genetically predisposed. If a horse's family shows one of these behaviors, that horse is more susceptible to start the behavior.

All breeds are susceptible to stall walking or weaving. The occurrence is more closely associated to the horse's use rather than other factors. Dressage competitors and racehorses exhibit these behaviors more often than do trail horses. It has not been studied yet why different uses make a difference in these behaviors, but it may be tied to feed, amount and type of exercise, and pasture time. Without further studies, there is no way to know if certain breeds are more susceptible than others.

About the Author

Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB

Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, is Emeritus Professor at Cornell University and the Director of Animal Behavior Consultants of Northern Michigan.

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