Student Research on Horse Behavior

Q: I am a third-year veterinary student at Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College. I am working on a paper for my Equine Health Management class, and I am focusing on equine behavioral stereotypies (cribbing, weaving, stall/box walking) and pasturing. Throughout my research I have found that increasing pasture turnout can help with the prevention/treatment of these conditions, but there are many other factors involved (dietary, breed predisposition, lack of socialization, etc).

One of the requirements of my paper is to seek advice on my topic from an expert in the field. I thought that with your experience at the University of Pennsylvania and the Havemeyer Equine Behavior Lab you might have some thoughts on how pasturing horses impacts stereotypical equine behavior. Do you think that pasturing horses for long periods of time helps prevent these conditions? Do you increase pasture turnout and herd socialization to help treat these behaviors? Or do you think that there is no correlation?

Julie, via e-mail (Ontario Veterinary College)

A:Great topic, and glad to hear you are interested in behavior. Yes, I think most behaviorists these days think that confining horses to stalls and feeding them highly concentrated feeds (rather than all-forage diets) on a human eating schedule, rather than on a natural grazing schedule (eating on and off in about 30-60 minute cycles, 24/7), increases the risk of developing stereotypies. This scenario also leads to other social stresses and lack of exercise.

My recommendation would be to avoid stabling as much as possible. Of course I realize that there are certain circumstances for which we wish to use our horses that make it almost impossible to avoid stabling, but to the extent that we can, we should. There are still many people with horses who think that indoor housing is ideal, and the feed companies sure want owners to think of the feed bag as the best nutrition, when in fact we should probably be putting our money and effort into finding and feeding good hay. Again, I realize there are parts of the world where good hay cannot be found at any price, and so the trade-off if we want to keep horses is to buy grains. But in many instances where adequate nutrition could be gained from an all-forage diet, people might still think that grain is better for horses.

Weaning time can also be very intensely stressful--nutritionally and socially--and likely contribute to development of stereotypies, particularly cribbing, so least-stress weaning strategies are also important.

Once a horse has exhibited a stereotypy, especially a locomotor stereotypy (such as stall walking, pacing, and weaving--as opposed to cribbing), certainly getting it out 24/7 with pasturemates usually helps.

Cribbing seems to be a class all its own, and it is not easy to eliminate once started. But I have seen many horses that were struggling with stereotypies when stabled and fed grain that have become completely stereoptypy-free and healthy when switched over to pasture with an all-forage diet and social contact.

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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