In this time of enlightened horse management, it is staggering that the myths and folklore surrounding stable "vices" still refuse to die, and therefore the repetitive behaviors themselves continue to thrive. Even the term "vice" implies the horse is the one at fault, when we now know that these abnormalities occur due to the horse being at psychological odds with the way we are keeping him.
Vices are better referred to as stereotypical behaviors, and we all know at least one horse that weaves, cribs, stall walks, or wind sucks. In fact, studies have found that more than 15% of horses show some form of these behaviors. In the United Kingdom, approximately 20,000 horses are thought to weave, yet such a visible symptom of psychological disturbance is often viewed as an incurable problem in itself and therefore best ignored, or dismissed with that well-worn phrase "Oh, he's always done that."
Why doesn't severe lameness get treated in the same way? It begs the question, would these same people so readily dismiss a person repeatedly banging their head against a wall, or would they feel the person was suffering in some way?
Not surprisingly, there are few individuals who can say they have helped their horse recover from weaving or any similar stereotypical behavior problem. The good news is that scientists at the University of Lincoln, England, have uncovered a strikingly simple way of helping weaving horses, and there are a growing number of owners who can claim to have done just that.
Keeping in Touch
Research led by veterinarian Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, IL TM, CBiol MIBiol, MRCVS, who has recently been honored as the United Kingdom's first Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, showed that placing a specially designed mirror in a stable could reduce weaving by an average of 97%. All the horses studied were known to have weaved for at least two years, yet within 24 hours, the behavior dramatically decreased or even stopped.
"These horses are not mentally ill," explains Mills. "They are responding to a problem.
"Abnormal behaviors such as weaving are only seen in animals in confinement, or where there are barren environments or insoluble problems," he says. "The animal has a lack of control over its situation and is faced with a problem it cannot resolve. With weaving, the scenario might be: 'There's another horse, but I can't actually get closer to you. I can see you, but I can't interact.' "
By placing a mirror in a stable, the horse feels he is no longer isolated, plus he is given the opportunity to choose whether to interact with his reflection. When the effect of using a stable mirror was compared with actual nose-to-nose contact with a horse in a neighboring stable, the reduction in weaving was similar.
"It's such a simple solution," explains Mills, "and it has such a big impact for some animals. The ideal answer is always a more natural system on management involving social interaction and exercise--there is no better enrichment--but when this is not available, I would recommend the use of a stable mirror.
"I was very surprised at the power of social contact and the speed of its effect," he adds. "It is clear that some weaving occurs when this need is not met, but also when there are other sources of frustration. Weaving behavior will peak before a major event in the horse's routine. Although there are good reasons for saying horses should be kept to a routine, routines become predictable. A high level of predictability becomes very stressful because you know what is going to happen when, but can do nothing about it, and so the frustration gets worse."
But although the effectiveness of a mirror in reducing weaving was proven over short periods of time (up to five weeks in total), there was no evidence that it would continue to work over an extended period. Now Mills' follow-up study of the people who have been using a stable mirror for 12 months or more clearly shows its long-term effectiveness and wider benefits.
The mirror was also found to be effective with other frustration-derived behaviors such as stall walking, and to a lesser extent head nodding, head threatening, and door-kicking. Horses suffering from various separation anxieties were also helped. Many that were happy in the field, but became stressed once brought indoors or upset while a companion was turned out or ridden, were found to be calmer. Some animals that did not eat due to anxiety have also shown improvement in their feeding habits.
Other reported benefits include reduced vocalising, improvements in temperament, and horses becoming easier to handle. Owners report their horses are easier to blanket or tack up as they now stand quietly watching their reflections. It might be that in these cases it removes the blind spot as you work around the horse, but the truth is no one knows.
The mirror has also been used as a preventive measure to stop psychological problems occurring during long-term box rest--owners believe mirrors have helped horses cope with confinement, leading to improvements in their well-being.
Finally, the mirror would seem to have a role in the upbringing of young horses. One owner used the mirror effectively to keep her horse calm during backing (first being sat upon by a human). And the mirror might have application during stall weaning, as weaning is a major stress that predisposes animals to these stereotypic behavior problems, but this needs further research.
Seeing is Believing
Top international show jumper Tim Stockdale has first-hand experience of many of the benefits the stable mirror offers, having used them in his stables for more than 18 months. "I had a new stallion who was weaving so badly, behind his grill, that he had knocked both his eyes," explains Stockdale. "The vet suggested I try a mirror. I couldn't believe the stallion's reaction. He is now so much calmer. I was so impressed that I decided to put them in all my main boxes, so I bought 13 more!"
Stockdale has since used mirrors with many horses, not just those with a specific problem, as he feels they help horses relax and therefore train better--although he points out it is not a clear-cut "mirror equals more wins" equation. He has noticed stereotypic behaviors are now much rarer in his stable. His personal observations on how horses first react to the mirror also strongly echo the findings of Mills' follow-up work.
"They all react, but it can be in very different ways," explains Stockdale. "I have seen horses jump back from the mirror, lick or nuzzle it, attack it or lay back their ears. They really do seem to think it is another horse. But overall they end up a lot more relaxed and settled. It is a comfort thing. I often see the horses asleep with their noses to their mirrors."
And for Stockdale, the mirror also offers an effective solution to another management problem--how to balance the horse's need for social interaction and space with commercial considerations and risks.
"You won't believe what it feels like to see a horse worth a half-million pounds (almost one million U.S. dollars) charging round a field and heading for a fence," says Stockdale. "It's like giving a six-year-old child the keys to your Rolls Royce. You just don't do it. At least with the mirrors, it offers a more natural situation for them in the stable, and they appear much happier."
With the success of the stable mirrors now confirmed, their application has been extended to help traveling problems for horses. A smaller mirror has now been produced, and is suitable for fitting in a trailer. So far it has been used with promising results for a variety of problems. These include helping poor loaders, calming nervous travelers, and reducing stress while waiting on a trailer at an event by providing a "traveling companion."
Talisman, a four-year-old bay Irish Draught gelding, is one such horse already benefiting from a travel mirror. Although confident and calm in company, Talisman regularly turns into a quivering wreck when alone. He weaves in a stable and, if expected to travel solo, cannot cope at all.
"In the lorry (horse trailer), by himself, he weaves really badly, to the point he almost throws himself on the floor," explains owner Rachel Sanderson from Nottinghamshire, England. "He goes ballistic. You can see his heart pumping through his skin, and he lathers up instantly."
This is with Talisman having been carefully introduced to traveling since he was a foal. "It had got to the point I couldn't go anywhere without help," adds Sanderson. "If a person traveled with him he was OK, but this wasn't always possible."
When a friend suggested fitting a purpose-made travel mirror in her trailer, Rachel wasn't convinced. "It sounded like a lot of rubbish to me, but I had tried everything else," she says. "When Talisman first saw his reflection, he was gob-smacked and just stood and stared. But now, with the mirror, he can travel by himself and has completely stopped weaving while on the move. When we are at a show, as long as I give him a few minutes to look round, he is much calmer waiting on the lorry. It has made a real difference. We can now go out by ourselves again."
So, as you come across horses that are shouting for help to cope with the environments in which we keep them, don't be tempted to feel there is nothing you can do. Although our requirements of the horse mean that fulfilling his needs for movement and social interaction cannot always be met in the way nature intended, there is a way to attempt to modify the environments to help him be more at ease.
USING STALL MIRRORS
- Positive effects of stall mirrors on weaving behavior are often seen immediately, but in some cases it can be gradual, taking a month or two to reach its full potential.
- Consider your horse's temperament carefully before getting a mirror--if he does not like other horses and tends to become aggressive in company, a mirror is likely to get the same reaction.
- The mirror will only be effective if the horse can see himself in it--clean it regularly.
- Correct positioning of the mirror is crucial, away from feeding and drinking areas (so your horse doesn't feel like he is competing for his feed).
- The horse must be able to choose whether to use the mirror or not, so don't be tempted to turn your stable into a multi-mirrored box.--Justine Harding
Don't be tempted to install a mirror in your horse's stable unless it has been specially constructed for the purpose. Glass and acrylic mirrors are not recommended because of the possibility they can break and injure your horse with loose shards. Highly polished stainless steel ones are best. Also, mirrors of the wrong size or incorrectly positioned can cause further problems in some horses.--Justine Harding
WHAT ABOUT WEAVING? Weaving Facts
- Some solid anti-weaving grills might reduce weaving slightly, but make horses more stressed. They often do not stop the behavior--the horse just does it out of your sight.
- Stall-weaning a foal can dramatically increase his chances of developing a repetitive behavior.
- Weaving is most prevalent prior to desirable events such as turn-out or feeding.
- Ad lib forage helps reduce weaving behavior.
- Clockwork management routines can make weaving worse due to a high level of predictability, and therefore anticipation and frustration.--Justine Harding
The Lincoln Stable and Travelling Companion Mirrors are available from Jackson Arenas in England. The mirrors come with fittings and positioning instructions. The stable mirror costs about $178 plus shipping and handling, and the travel version is about $131 plus shipping and handling, with a percentage of all sales going directly back into helping fund further research in this area of horse welfare.
About the Author
Justine Harding is a freelance journalist with a special interest in equine behavior. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and an MSc in Equine Studies. She has worked for many of the leading UK equestrian magazines as well as writing on a variety of subjects from dogs to parenting to self-building.
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