Stereotypical behaviour is often better known under the term ‘stable vices’. Stable vice is actually a wrong term, because it implies that the horse intentionally behaves negatively at that time. This is a human approach, because a horse does not think in this way.
Stereotypical behaviour is a repetitive, compulsive movement that at first glance seems to have no function. You can think of wind sucking, cribbing, weaving, box walking and the like. Animals start to exhibit stereotypical behaviour when they cannot or insufficiently perform their natural behaviours for a long time. For example, a horse that does not get free movement or is kept without other horses. This creates chronic stress.
Stress is a state in which the animal is under (severe) psychological and/or physical pressure as a result of stressors (= causes of stress). These stressors can come from the outside (the environment) or inside (the horse itself). Stress arises when an animal or human comes into a situation that is unpredictable and/or uncontrollable for them. He therefore does not know what is going to happen at that moment and cannot exercise any or insufficient influence over the situation. First there is acute stress. This form of stress is not harmful and is needed for survival. For example, it causes a horse to flee the moment he sees a predator. But if the stress persists too long or occurs too often, then acute stress changes into chronic stress, which can be harmful to the horse’s health.
One way to deal with this chronic stress is, for example, to perform stereotypical behaviour. Research shows that while performing stereotypical behaviors, the substance Endorphin is released into the brain. This substance ensures that the horse gets a feeling of happiness, and it also has pain relieving properties. Endorphins work as a kind of drug addiction. The horse becomes dependent (addicted) to inducing Endorphins, as a result of which it eventually starts to exhibit stereotypical behaviour without any reason. This is also the reason why it is very difficult, or almost impossible, to prevent once the horse has developed stereotypical behaviour.
Horses can express stereotypical behaviour in different ways. A common form is wind sucking or cribbing. This occurs when the horse puts his teeth on an edged surface, for example the stable door or food bowl, and tightens the neck muscles in such a way that the esophagus opens and the horse can suck in air. In addition to this, weaving also occurs regularly. When weaving, the horse moves rhythmically, alternating its weight from its left to its right leg. Often the horse also moves the hind legs in a walking pattern.
There are different products available on the market to stop stereotypical behavior. Think of special collars against wind sucking or anti-weaving grills. As a result, the horse can no longer practise the stereotypical behaviour, and no Endorphins are released. It may therefore cause more stress and the wellbeing of the horse does not seem to improve. It is therefore better to eliminate the cause of the behaviour. Wind sucking horses may, for example, have stomach conditions; and weaving often results from a lack of (free) movement. But it is even better to prevent stereotypical behaviour by ensuring your horse can perform its natural behaviours as much as possible. A number of important points to remember are:
- Social interaction: ensure that your horse has sufficient social contact with fellow horses. If it is not possible to place horses together in a field or paddock, make sure that they can see each other.
- Feeding: make sure the horse has access to food for a longer period of time. For example by feeding several smaller portions per day, by offering unlimited roughage or by using straw as bedding.
- Exercise: make sure that your horse gets enough exercise, in the form of training and/or grazing.
- Stabling: give your horse a light stable that is large enough for it. Also, prevent your horse from getting bored by regularly taking it out of its stable.
It is often thought that horses copy stereotypical behaviour from each other. However, this has not been scientifically proven and most researchers think that this is unlikely. If you find several horses with stable vices in one yard, the cause of this often lies with the accommodation or the management of the horses.