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Stable or Barn Vices Overview

Stable or barn vices range from annoying to life threatening. They are a byproduct of modern human / horse compromises and usually develop as a result of being confined with insufficient exercise or unskilled riders. Stable or barn vices are a management issue for an owner, and can have health and safety consequences if not addressed.


Causes: Vices can develop out of

  1. Boredom
  2. Hunger
  3. Nervous Energy
  4. Isolation
  5. Learned Behavior (Learned by observing other horses that already have the habit.)

Nearly all stable vices occur in animals kept full time in box stalls or other forms of confinement in a small area. If recognized before they become well established, they can be eliminated or minimized by providing increased daily exercise and, ideally, more turnout time in a paddock or pasture. Turned out horses rarely develop vices, other than occasional wood-chewing when they are bored or hungry. A horse that has well-established stable vices and other neurotic behaviors may continue to exhibit these problems for a while even with full-time turnout, though over the course of several weeks or months the will become less severe. Vices may return if the rehabilitated horse is put back into a box stall.

Common Stable Vices Include:

Biting: A nervous or anxious equine may reach out of its stall to bite at passers-by, human or animal. Box stall designs that keep the horse from reaching its head out prevent harm to other animals, but some horses may still attempt to bite a handler when the person enters the stall.
Bolting Feed: Eating food too fast without adequate chewing, this potentially can lead to certain problems in the digestive system including choke and colic.
Circling: Like weaving, this is a repetitive movement, only the individual circles compulsively in its stall rather than just rocking back and forth. This habit can also lead to weight loss and lameness.
Cribbing: When the equine grabs a board or other surface with its teeth, arches its neck, and sucks in air. This can harm the teeth and may lead to colic. Cribbing can be caused either by nervousness or boredom, it may release endorphins in the horse.[citation needed] Recent research suggests that cribbing increases salivation and may reduce stomach discomfort.
Masturbation: A male horse, either a stallion or a gelding, will use its abdominal muscles to rhythmically bounce its penis against its belly. Previously believed to be a vice caused by boredom, confinement, or discomfort. Masturbation by stallions and geldings is now understood to be a normal behavior. Furthermore, this behavior rarely results in ejaculation and does not impact fertility.
Miscellaneous Behavior Problems: Other behaviors that arise from boredom or frustration may not be vices with health or safety consequences, but still present management challenges and there is little that can be done to stop them. These include destruction of buckets, mangers, and feed tubs; defecation in the manger or water bucket; dumping water buckets; sloshing feed in water and then scattering it on the ground etc.
Pawing or Digging: The equine may paw with its front feet. This can lead to abnormal hoof wear and lameness, and may also damage the flooring of the box stall. An equine that paws can dig a noticeable hole in a dirt-floored barn in a very short time.
Wall Kicking: Kicking the walls of its stall with hind legs. This raises the potential of damage both to the equine and to the barn. Usually this is caused by a lack of exercise and boredom. Wall-kicking is one habit that is often picked up by others in the barn once a single individual starts doing it.
Weaving: Rocking back and forth in a repetitive fashion, possibly a self-stimulating behavior. Weaving is often seen with particularly nervous animals, or those that do not get out of their stalls often enough. Problems with weaving can include weight loss and uneven hoof wear, unnatural stress on the legs and lameness.
Wood Chewing: Gnawing on wood out of hunger or boredom. This habit can evolve into the more serious vice, Cribbing.

Stable or Barn Vices Cures: There are cures that can be provided in the stall to keep a horse busy or out of trouble. However, none of these practices solve the underlying problems (Hunger, nervous energy, isolation and boredom) and the animal will resume its behavior. The only long-term solution is to give the horse less time in the stall and, preferably, more free turnout time.

  1. Dietary Change: Feeding of larger quantities of lower-quality food (so the animal spends more time eating and less time being bored).
  2. Dietary Change: Cutting back on grain or other high-energy concentrates.
  3. Feeding Frequency: More frequent feeding of smaller quantities of feed.
  4. Toys: Toyssuch as a ball or empty one-gallon plastic milk jug can be hung in the stall.
  5. Another Horse: Sometimes simply giving the horse a companion in the next stall.
  6. Horse Pet: A smaller animal placed in the same stall, also helps a bored or nervous horse.
  7. Cribbing Cure: A short term fix may include putting on a "cribbing strap" (which prevents sucking in air)
  8. Biting Cure: A short term fix may include putting on a muzzle,
  9. Pawing Cure: A short term fix may include hobbling its feet.
  10. Weaving Cure: A short term fix may include tying up the horse in its stall.

Non-Barn or Stable Vices:

Bolting or Runaways: Most often, bolting refers to a "runaway" - horses that gallop off with a handler at high speed, whether being ridden under saddle or driving in harness. The phrase "take the bit in it's teeth" is a colloquial reference to bolting. However, in reality, a bolting horse cannot really take the bit in its teeth, as the bit rests on the gums in an inter-dental space where there are no teeth. What a horse actually does is to tighten its jaw in a manner that allows it to ignore bit pressure.
Bolting Causes:

  1. Fear: There are many causes, most linked to fright that triggers the fight or flight instinct of the horse. In these circumstances, the animal is often running in a panic and may not notice where it is going, creating a dangerous situation for both horse and rider. Horses may also bolt if greatly frightened when loose in a pen or pasture. In a confined area, this may result in an animal running into or jumping a fence.
  2. Disobedience: Less often, bolting is a deliberate disobedience by a horse that wishes to rid itself of a handler or avoid an unpleasant situation. In both cases, bolting horses are usually stopped by being turned in some type of circle, as directly pulling on the reins has little impact. Deliberate bolting is also sometimes seen in horse racing when the horse chooses to ignore its jockey and run as it wishes, often in a manner that makes it difficult for the rider to maneuver the horse or rate its speed. Bolting race horses often head toward the outer rail of the track and even lose racing speed in an attempt to evade the rider's commands.

Bucking: Bucking is a movement performed by a horse in which the animal lowers his head and raises his hindquarters into the air, usually while kicking out with his hind legs. If powerful, it may unseat the rider enough so that he falls off.
Reasons for Bucking: Bucking, though a potentially dangerous disobedience when under saddle, is a natural aspect of horse behavior. It developed in the wild for the purpose of protection from feline predators such as mountain lions, which would attack horses by dropping onto their backs from above. The process of kicking out with both hind legs, another defense mechanism for the horse, also results in a mild bucking movement. Thus, for a human to safely ride a horse, the horse has to be desensitized to the presence of something on its back and also learn not to kick out with both hind legs while under saddle. Nonetheless, because the instinct is always there, bucking can still occur for a number of reasons:

  1. Happiness: As when a horse bucks during a gallop because he is enjoying himself, or during play.
  2. General excitement, such as horses that buck in a crowded schooling ring or at the beginning of a ride in a crowd of horses, such as an endurance ride.
  3. Confusion to Riding Aids: The rider's aids are causing confusion or fear in the horse, and the horse responds by bucking.
  4. Fresh Horse: The horse is "fresh," having been kept up in a stall for a long period of time, and is releasing pent-up energy.
  5. Pain:  Pain, which may be due to an ill-fitting saddle or another piece of equipment, tooth problems, or other medical issues.
  6. Provocation: Usually due to an insect bite (usually on the hindquarters) which the horse is trying to rid himself of, or in some cases a response to use of a whip on the flank or hindquarters.
  7. Untrained Horses: Untrained horses may instinctually buck the first few times they have a saddle on the back if not given proper ground training, and occasionally, even with proper preparation. This is an instinctive defense mechanism.  Having found that bucking the rider off results in not having to work, the horse does it to avoid his exercise.  
  8. Disobedience to the Riding Aids: When a horse does not wish to do what is asked by the rider. Sometimes this is due to poor riding on the part of the person, but sometimes a horse attempts to evade a legitimate request by bucking.
  9. Rodeo Broncos: Rodeo broncos’ are used specifically as bucking horses, usually bred to be prone to bucking and encouraged to buck whenever a rider is on their back with the help of a "bucking strap" around their flank.

Rider Education: Beginning riders need to learn to ride out and correct a simple buck or two, because it is a relatively common form of disobedience. Further, at times, movement akin to bucking is actually required of a horse: Horses that are jumping over an obstacle actually are using almost the same action as bucking when launching them into the air, it is simply carried out with advanced planning over a higher and wider distance. The classical dressage movement known as the Capriole is also very similar to the low buck done by a horse when it kicks out with both hind legs.
Solutions to Bucking: Bucking, especially if triggered by fear, pain or excitement, is generally a minor disobedience, unless it is strong enough to unseat the rider, at which point it is a dangerous act. If bucking is a premeditated act of the horse and becomes an undesired habit (such as when a horse learns to buck off a rider so that he will no longer have to work), then the horse must be re-schooled by a professional trainer. There have been Olympians who have had to send their horses for re-training by a specialist.It is important to address the problem of the bucking immediately. Even with good cause, it is a potentially dangerous disobedience that cannot be encouraged or allowed to continue. However, a rider does need to be sure that it is not poor riding that is causing confusion, or a result of poorly-fitting tack that is causing the horse pain. The horse's turn-out schedule should also be assessed, as extra turn-out will give a horse to release his extra energy before the rider gets on. In certain cases (such as a show, when horses are unable to be turned-out for extended periods), longeing the horses for a brief period can help calm him enough so that the rider can get on.
If a horse bucks, the best solution is to use one direct rein to pull the horse's head sideways and up, turning the horse in a small circle. If a rider pulls the horse's head up with both reins, the horse's neck is stronger and the rider is likely to be flipped over the horse's head. By turning the horse sideways, the rider has more leverage and a horse cannot easily buck while turning around. When the horse stops bucking, it must be asked to move forward; a horse also cannot buck very hard while moving forward. Usually a horse gives some warning that it is about to buck by dropping its head, slowing down or stopping, and excessively rounding up in the back (cowboys referred to this as "getting a lump in the back"). To discourage bucking when the rider anticipates it, the rider should ask the horse to move forward or in a circle, raise their hands and the horse's head, and deliberately put the horse into a hollowed-out frame for a moment by sitting back a bit with their heels down, seat deep, and shoulders slightly back. This will help a rider stay in balance if the horse bucks, and the act of deliberately raising the head and hollowing out the horse's back reduces the power and severity of the buck. Certain training aids, such as a gag bit, certain types of martingale or, particularly on ponies, an overcheck, may also discourage bucking.
Consequences of Chronic Bucking: Horses that are chronic and consistent buckers cannot be ridden safely and if they cannot be retrained, become unsuitable for any type of ordinary riding. There are few options available to such an animal. In a few cases, a horse that cannot be trained not to buck may be sold to a rodeo stock contractor. Ironically, such horses often fetch a high price in the bucking stock world because they are easy to handle on the ground, yet very clever and skilled at unseating riders, thus allowing a cowboy to obtain a high score if he can stay on. At rodeo auctions such as the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, a spoiled riding horse, particularly one that is powerfully built, will bring a top price and enjoy a long career doing what they have learned to do.

Rearing: Rearing is when a horse "stands up" on his hind legs, so that his body becomes more perpendicular to the ground. Rearing is considered a dangerous habit for riding horses, as it is possible for the animal to fall backwards, especially when carrying the added weight of a person, and possibly injure himself and crush his rider. It is therefore strongly discouraged by riders, and a horse that has a habit of rearing is generally best left to more experienced horsemen.
Rearing may also be taught as a trick, in which case the rider must be careful to let the horse know that it is only acceptable to rear when the movement is asked. A horse may also neigh loudly or snort when rearing.
Causes of Rearing: This movement is usually performed out of fright or aggression, but it also may be caused by excitement, confusion, or pain. It is not uncommon to see stallions rearing in the wild when they fight, while striking at their opponent with their front legs. Mares are generally more likely to kick when acting in aggression, rather than rear.
Dealing with the Rearing Horse: If the horse is rearing due to pain, or if it is unknown why the horse is rearing, the owner should have an equine veterinarian come and examine the animal, paying great attention to the horse's mouth and teeth, back, and feet. The rider should also check the fit of his saddle, make sure the tree is not broken, and check the placement of the saddle on the horse's back, as many riders place the saddle too far forward. The fit of the bit should also be checked, and the rider should take into consideration the severity of the bit. Riders should also consider the management of the horse, especially his turn-out time and diet.
If the problem is due to fright or excitement, it is best to keep the horse out of situations that cause it to rear, rather than to provoke it. If the horse rears out of habit, many trainers advocating punishing the horse after it rears.
Rearing While Riding: If a horse rears while under saddle, the rider should lean forward, possibly to one side of the neck, and keep the reins slack, so as to discourage the horse from falling over backwards. Some riders prefer to grab the neck of the horse.
These horses should be treated with caution, and are not appropriate for inexperienced riders or handlers. It is generally best to send a horse that rears to a knowledgeable trainer, rather than risk one's life on injury, especially if the rider is frightened by this behavior.
 
A bridle can help to offer more control of a rearing horse on the ground. Generally a rider can feel if a horse is about to rear, as it backs and places its weight on its hindquarters. This is the best time for the rider to act to prevent a rear, either by driving the horse forward with a whip and spurs, or to disengage the hindquarters. Some trainers also advocate the use of a martingale, tie-down, or gogue. The important thing is to get the horse moving forward.

The rider should be sure that the horse is not rearing out of confusion because he does not understand what the aids mean, or because the rider is giving harsh or conflicting aids. In these cases, training of both the horse and rider is required.
Rearing on the Ground: For horses that rear while leading, it is best to stand right next to the shoulder, so that the handler has maximum control but is still away from the front legs should the horse strike out. Stallions that rear out of aggression on the ground should wear a stud chain while being lead. Leading with a bridle on also increases control.