Behavior: Strong Reaction to Strangers

Q: I have a 5-year-old headstrong mare with whom I have a good, solid bond. She works well on the ground and is a dream under saddle for me. She does not like strangers coming into the barn, and she counts my boarder's farrier and also our veterinarian as interlopers who mess up the daily schedule. Unless I stand by her door and keep her company, she weaves rapidly and frequently will kick the wall to assert her displeasure.

I have no issues with her at meal time, nor is she too fussy about grooming, hoof picking, and general care. Is my daily routine too routine? Should I alter the schedule more and get more strangers to visit the barn? What can I do to positively influence her tolerance of events?        Nancy, Lisbon, N.H.

A: Without seeing your mare's behavior in those situations firsthand, including when and how it starts and stops, it is difficult to speculate what it is about visitors that provokes her weaving and kicking. It's interesting that you mention vets and farriers. It would be useful to find out if her response is the same to other visitors. If it is only vets and farriers, she would not be the first horse to become upset in anticipation of veterinary or hoof care. However, the reaction you describe is fairly extreme for an aversion to vets and farriers.

So more history might be helpful. How many times has this happened? How is she when the vet and her farrier actually work with her? Has she had difficult times with either her vet or a farrier? Does she show just this anxious weaving and kicking, or does she pin her ears as they pass or otherwise show signs of fear of either individual? Does she calm down as soon as they leave?

Another possibility to think about is that she might be anticipating feeding. Are you in the barn yourself much other than at feeding time? For some of us, sadly, our only visits to the barn are mostly at meal times. When we come in the middle of the day, the horses show signs anticipating feeding. If that is the case for you, her behavior could be related to anticipating meals whenever you are in the barn.

How is she if you come to the barn at meal time, but are delayed for some reason in feeding? If that has never happened, maybe you should test that.

Weaving and kicking are not altogether uncommon in delayed feeding situations. One thing to think about is the possibility that the mare might have gastric ulcers, which are very common in horses. Not all, but some horses with gastric ulcers can seem especially anxious while waiting for feeding and can show signs of abdominal discomfort, including kicking out, bucking, and looking a bit colicky. Your veterinarian can evaluate your mare for ulcers.

In the meantime, one thing you might try when the vet or farrier comes the next few times is to throw her some fresh hay or give her a feeding. I would put it to the back of the stall if you can. If her anxious behavior is because of anticipation of feeding, she should focus on eating and not get upset. If it is because she is upset with the vet or farrier or visitors in general, then the feeding might be enough to distract her and provide positive reinforcement all in one. Then, by association with feeding, the visitor scenario should become a positive event. Of course, then you will have taught her to expect feeding with that situation, but this is probably better than having her weave or chance her injuring herself by kicking a wall.

Another approach that you might try in the meantime to reduce stress for your mare and her chance of injury would be to turn her out when you have visitors, either alone or with a buddy. Again, you could give a flake of alfalfa or a small grain treat as you turn her out, both to distract her from whatever worries her, and so that she associates visitors with something good.

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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