Self-Mutilation or Pain?

Q: I have a horse that I believe is displaying a form of self-mutilating behavior, and I'm wondering if you have any insight that can help us to manage this.

A veterinarian estimated that our gelding Pal was 10 years old when we purchased him about a year ago. The only thing I know about his past is that he came off a working cattle operation. With gall mark scars on his withers and underbelly, he looks like he was worked hard. When we brought him home, he would not eat a carrot, apple, or horse treat--it was like he had never been given or seen such a thing. He would not eat from a bucket.

He is a very willing horse that wants to please. My daughter is 9 years old, and she can do anything on him. He has never once offered to buck or bite; he's a great ride for her and her confidence. He is turned out in a large pasture, and we trail ride on a regular basis.

When we first got him, I kept him in a pen with my mare and my 3-year-old gelding (see a video below). I had to take the mare out when Pal became aggressive with her. He was trying to breed her and not letting any other horses around her. Then, when we pastured Pal with my very old pony gelding, Pal would herd him nonstop around the pasture. It seemed like he was doing this out of boredom, like he needed a job to do. I had to remove the pony because of his age and the fear Pal was going to hurt him.

Now, in the early evening before feeding time, we see him perform a biting and circling ritual. Pal will run the gelding around the pasture, then he just stops and circles and bites at himself, then he takes off to run and chase again. I have witnessed that behavior during the day, too, just not as often. I think he must be doing it on a regular basis, though, because I can see the dried marks on his hair in the flank, sides, and shoulder area where he has been biting.

I'm not sure what else I can add to help give you an idea of what is causing him to behave like this. He is not biting through his skin or causing sores. Is this self-mutilation? Are there other things that I should be concerned about that go along with this behavior?

I really appreciate your willingness to look at the video and hear your feedback. I hope it will also serve as a useful resource for you and others that have horses with similar behaviors.

 Cheryl Blank, via e-mail

A: I have looked at a clip of the video forwarded over the Internet to me by the editors of The Horse. The behavior exhibited by your horse does look like self-mutilation. There are three different types of self-mutilation behaviors in male horses. From the brief video clip is not easy to tell exactly which type it is. If I had to guess it looks most like abdominal discomfort. Some horses with gastric ulcers appear uncomfortable in anticipation of feeding, presumably as gastric juices start flowing and irritate the empty stomach. Some horses, and often those with gastric ulcers, start to become what is called food-aggressive. They get excited about feeding time and guard the feeding area. I didn't see anything that looked like frank aggression, but that herding and romping might be an attempt to herd his pasturemate away from the feeding area. Could that be? You would certainly have a better feel from watching him all this time.

His turning his head back and nipping at his abdomen also looks a bit like the self-directed intermale aggression form of self-mutilation. But since he is playing with the other gelding at the time, it seems that he would have a natural target for the nipping and biting, so it would seem odd for him to bite himself. Stallions that are pastured or stalled and can't get to another stallion are the ones that seem to do it to themselves.

You might separate this gelding from his play partner and see what he does. Try to figure out if he always does this at feeding time, even when no play partner is around.

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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