A vice is a form of abnormal behaviour, usually destructive in nature, which eventually becomes a habit. These behaviours are usually seen in horses kept in confined areas for long periods of time, those prevented from socialising or those that lack sufficient roughage in their diet. Previously, it was thought that vices were ‘catching’. A horse that performed a vice may have been isolated to prevent his stable mates from copying him and forming their own stereotypical behaviours. Recent studies have not been able to conclusively confirm this and it is now thought that isolating the affected horse may cause the condition to worsen.
A nervous or anxious horse may reach out of its stable to bite at passers-by. Stable 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 stable. Biting can be controlled by tying the horse up on a short lead when handling and giving a sharp tap on a fleshy area of the body accompanied by a strong ‘NO’ to help reduce the incidence of this problem.
The horse will grasp the stable door or other surface with its teeth, arch its neck, and suck in air. This can cause uneven wear on the horse’s teeth and can also lead to colic. Cribbing may be caused either by nervousness or boredom. Studies have shown that the action may release endorphins in the horse and therefore acts as a stress reliever. Cribbing does not usually cause a safety concern to a handler. Providing more turn out and lots of roughage may help to reduce the occurrence of cribbing.
Kicking and Pawing
The horse may kick or paw with its front or hind feet. This can lead to abnormal hoof wear and lameness, and may also damage the stable. The horse may be kicking and pawing due to boredom, discomfort or as a way of getting attention from humans. Handlers need to be very aware and be quick to move out of the way in case they get kicked. Tying up the horse when working with it will make it easier to avoid being kicked.
Stall or Box Walking
The horse will continuously and aimlessly march around the box in circles. This can result in damage to ligaments, tendons and joints as well as causing mental and physical exhaustion. It is almost impossible to stop this behavior from happening once the habit has formed. Try to turn the horse out as much as possible and if stabling is absolutely necessary, ensure that they have some type of distraction such as a horseball or plenty of roughage to eat. Handlers need to be aware that when a box walker is tied up it may become stressed and increasingly difficult to handle.
An affected horse will rock from side to side with its back end, scratching its tail against a stable wall, fence post or tree. This action may be caused in the first instance by parasites and then becomes a habit. Ensure the horse is parasite free and apply a tail bandage to prevent tail damage.
A ‘weaver’ will rock from side to side in a repetitive fashion often with their head out over the stable door. Weaving is often seen with particularly nervous animals, or those that do not get out of their stables often enough. Problems with weaving can include weight loss and uneven hoof wear, unnatural stress on the legs and associated lameness. Try to turn the horse out more and provide boredom relievers in the stable. Weaving grilles that fit onto the bottom stable door and reduce the space available to weave in can sometimes help.
This vice may be caused by mineral deficiencies, internal parasites or teeth problems. The habit causes excessive wear on the incisor teeth and may make eating and grazing very difficult. Cover wooden surfaces in the stable with metal or rubber strips or obtain and apply a product designed to prevent wood chewing to exposed wooden surfaces.
Bolting is a vice that occurs when the horse is under saddle. The affected horse’s flight instinct kicks in and he will rush off in an uncontrollable manner and be very reluctant to stop. It may occur suddenly after a repeat of a bad experience in the past. Handlers should ensure that there are no physical problems that may be causing the horse to bolt e.g. sore mouth, teeth or back. Ensure that the saddle fits correctly and the bit is comfortable in the horse’s mouth. The horse should be ridden by an experienced rider to prevent the bolting from occurring in the first place. Avoid riding out in large open spaces and utilise a ‘nanny’ – ride out with a bomb proof horse to reassure the bolter.
Rearing & Striking
Rearing can occur when the horse is being ridden as well as when he is being handled on the ground. The horse brings his front legs off the ground and ‘sits down’ on the ground, often striking out with the front legs as well. Fearful horses may rear up and strike out when trying to avoid something or when they are suddenly startled. Handlers need to try and identify and remove the trigger for the behavior – it may be caused by fear of something specific or by pain and discomfort. The horse will quickly learn that rearing can make the handler backoff and a clever horse may start to use the vice as a way of getting out of work. Experienced handlers are required when dealing with a rearer, both on the ground and under saddle.
Again, this can occur when the horse is being ridden or when handled from the ground. The horse will spook and quickly jump away at a real or imagined sight, sound or smell that they perceive to be a threat. The handler is at risk from being stood on or squashed and a rider caught unaware can easily fall from the saddle. Calm and firm handling is needed to reassure the horse and prevent injury to both horse and handler.
The horse may pull against his headcollar when tied up, pull the handler when being led or pull against the bridle when being ridden. This vice may be caused by a variety of different issues. The horse may be frightened or in pain and is trying to escape. Handlers must try to identify the cause of the problem and then remove or rectify it appropriately.