Horse in the stable
Buying a horse Horse Care

What are stable vices and how do you fix them?7 min read

When you’re buying a horse or looking around for one that you can lease or adopt, look out fo these tell-tale signs of possible issues.

Horses can develop problems for many reasons, some will be easily fixed while others will require money and/or effort to be solved.

The one thing that all problems have in common, is that you should always be willing to put in the time and effort it takes to discover the root of the problem and then treat it directly rather than opting to treat the symptoms without fixing the problem itself.

If a horse develops a medical problem, it will usually take a combination of money and effort to first fix the problem and then change routines and keep up with rehabilitation.

Some horses develop medical problems that will affect their care, feeding and use for the rest of their lives

Medical problems should always be diagnosed by a qualified veterinarian.

If a horse develops behavioural problems they can usually be fixed through a combination of knowledge and effort.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with anything at any time contact a professional to help you.

You should also educate yourself and increase your equine knowledge by reading books, researching on the internet and speaking with other horse people.

What are stable vices?

Stable vices are something which many people see as part of the temperament of the horse and so think that they must accept the vice and try to dampen it as best they can.

Some of the most common stable vices include wood chewing, also known as cribbing, pawing, weaving, tail rubbing and stall kicking.

If you keep your eyes open as you visit different stables, you’ll quickly see how sadly common it is to have wood structures in stables chewed down.

Often, you’ll also see wooden structures covered in metal to prevent the horses from getting to the wood.

This kind of solution, that only addresses the symptoms instead of the problem, will usually elicit a different type of vice to replace the one that the horse can no longer perform.

For instance, a wood chewer might one day find all the wooden structures covered in metal in his stall and when unable to chew on the wood will instead begin to weave or suck air.

Wood chewing on the paddock fence.

The kind of solution that does not address the problem is a lazy choice, because it does not fix the root of the problem.

Possible causes of stable vices

The root of the problem with stable vices can often be found in overfeeding, insufficient exercise, unfulfilled species-specific needs, loneliness, boredom, problems with neighbours and learned habits.

When the cause of the stable vice is not medical, such as colic, it can usually be remedied with training and a re-adjustment of routine or feeding.

Adjusting the diet of your horse

Checking that the horse is not being over-fed and then left to stand still in his stall to become restless, turning him out more often to release pent up energy or exercising him more and in different ways should help.

An important consideration is also the type of feed the horse is given: horses have developed over 60 million years to eat low-quality forage throughout the day.

Splitting up the food rations of your horse into as many times in a day as possible (at least 3 times, preferably more) and ensuring he has plenty of hay or low-sugar grass to eat, will also help to reduce stable vices.

Retraining your horse

When the problem is behavioural it can be remedied by first finding out what has caused the problem and then training the horse to replace the bad behaviour with more constructive behaviour.

For instance, if a horse has gotten really excited about feeding and has rushed at the human carrying the food, causing the person a fright, the horse has usually been rewarded by having the feed dropped quickly in front of him and the human backing away.

When the horse then repeatedly begins to charge the person carrying the feed the behaviour is rewarded by the human dropping the feed quickly for the horse, he will learn that this is what he should do to get fed.

Since the horse is inadvertently getting rewarded for his bad habits, he will think that this is how he should behave around all humans and even other horses.

Not only is this bad manners from lack of training, but it is also dangerous to the people feeding and handling him.

A horse can easily bowl over a human and trample or squeeze you into corners or up against walls.

This type of behaviour can also spill into other situations, such as when the horse is being groomed, led or ridden and you might end up with an unrideable horse.

Stabling a horse with stable vices

Stable vices are a serious concern because they can lead to serious injury, illness and even death in some cases if a horse colics as a result of cribbing or injures himself from stall kicking and has to be put down.

Locomotor stereotypes, such as weaving and stall-walking can also do damage to legs, joints and tendons from repetitive, uneven stress.

You should note that when a horse has stable vices some stables might not want to house him. Other owners might not want their horse next to a horse that already has stable vices for fear of transfer.

Horses won’t copy behaviour like stable vices when they have no personal need to engage in them

It may seem like horses in stables copy each other, but in reality, a whole stable of horses that are all under-engaged, overfed and/or anxious from not having their species-specific needs fulfilled, are all just expressing similar symptoms caused by their individual problems.

The fact that the symptoms are similar is due to how horses as a species react to living a stabled lifestyle, which is unnatural to horses.

This very anxious horse (below) is displaying both walking (left) and weaving (right) as well as tossing the head, which is an expression of stress. Source: Weaving.

Re-training a horse takes patience, knowledge, time and effort, but a horse can be re-trained and cured of even the worst problems

Some problems will become seriously ingrained and might not ever completely disappear even if re-training redirects most of the behaviour.

The only limit to how well behaved your horse can be is your own input. Please remember that any problem your horse comes with or develops in your care is your responsibility to fix – no matter if it’s money or your own time and effort that it takes.

Consult professional help when you need it, don’t try to remedy something one your own that you are unsure of how to do – it might make the problem worse.

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