Here I will keep feeding different questions and their answers to help all learn about their horses. If there are any particular questions that you have, just call or email me, I am always happy to help.
Please remember that practically all cases must be handled on a one-to-one basis, initially eliminating any medical causes. These snippets are here to give you an idea about the behavioural process.
"My 6 year old TB mare has been chewing and eating the fencing for the past few months. She only this behaviour since our first snowfall. Is this something to worry about? Do you have any idea why she might be doing this?"
As with all behaviours I would initially advise getting your mare fully checked out by your vet and equine dentist to eliminate any medical causes. With organic causes eliminated, we could then explore the behavioural element to this abnormal behaviour.
Commonly our domestic horses develop such patterns, termed as a stereotypie commonly known as a ‘stable vice’. I often see this kind of behaviour through my consulting work, whether the horse is stabled or not. It is most often caused by restrictions in the horses’ environment (1) Over sixty-five million years the horse has developed certain strategies to survive. Being domesticated for a relatively mere few thousand years, means that these well evolved instinctual drives are still present in the minds of our own horses. Our domestic horses still have these drives to roam with a large herd for 24 hours a day, to graze browse and forage for around 18 hours a day, they need to explore different sights, sounds, tastes and have the freedom to flee from dangerous situations (2) Often this is hard to replicate for us owners and our horses can become stressed as a result, adopting abnormal behaviours to cope with the restrictions that they face (3)
As you said, your mare adopted this coping strategy after your first snowfall. The snow must have been difficult in terms of your management routine and your mare would have noticed these changes, developing this behavioural pattern.
The easiest way to reduce such behaviours is through a simple enrichment programme, adding more choice, variety and freedom to behave as necessary. Think of the social stability that your horse has, does she have access to a herd for 24 hours a day? If you do stable her, would you be able to stable her companion next door? Are you able to increase stimulation, providing toys and objects to play and explore, a great example is to drop an apple in a water bucket for ‘apple bobbing’ or a swede on the floor for her to push around and eat as she chooses.
Looking inside the horses’ brain, there are certain chemicals working to cause feelings of satisfaction, depression, aggression and so on. To increase relaxation, encourage natural foraging behaviours by scattering hay on the floor, dropping carrots and other veggies amongst the hay for exploration and positive reward.
This is really brief so I would strongly recommend consulting with your local qualified equine behaviourist, someone who will work alongside your vet and only uses purely positive techniques to relieve underlying stress. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask at anytime.
Katie B Wade
1. Kiley-Worthington, M. (1987) The Behaviour of Horses: In Relation to Management and Training, J. A. Allen, United Kingdom
2. McDonnell, S. (2003) A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behaviour: The Equid Ethogram, The Blood Horse Inc., United States
3. Barnard, C. and Hurst, J. (1996) Welfare by Design: The Natural Selection of Welfare Criteria, Animal Welfare, Vol. 5, pp. 415-433
Katie B Wade is a fully qualified and experienced animal behaviourist, working alongside veterinary clinics, rescue centres, societies, breeders as well as individual owners to assist with various aspects of animal behaviour and training. With professional experience handling, training, breeding and rehabilitating the competition horse, Katie went on to study a degree in Psychology and then on to specialise in Equine Behaviour with The Natural Animal Centre. Katie provides scientifically sound advice to the general public, building a bridge between academic research and practical horse ownership.
Katie B Wade