Stereotypical Behaviour (Stable Vices)

What is a Stereotypy (stable vice) ?

The traditional term for a stereotypy is a stable vice. Stable vices come in various forms and severities, some of which we and the horse can live with and others are harder to live with, or are even physically damaging to the horse.  Whether severe or not, they are not something we should ignore.

We see stereotypies occur when the horses range of natural behaviours is reduced, or when exposed to things that make it feel anxious.

For example

  • lack of socialisation (social isolation)
  • lack of movement (box rest)
  • being stabled next to a horse it does not get on with
  • being stabled near to a hose pipe when hose pipes make it fearful.

The stereotypies we commonly hear of are

  • weaving
  • cribbing (or crib biting)
  • wind sucking
  • box walking
  • door kicking
  • nodding
  • tongue flapping
  • tongue sucking

….the list is quite long.

There are also some stereotypies that we see that are not really thought of as stereotypies, such as, repeated casting.  If a horse repeatedly gets cast this is often considered a stereotypy.

The definition of stereotypy will help us understand why.

Stereotypy Definition:  A stereotypy is a repeated, relatively invariate sequence of movements (the pattern of movement(s) does not change) which has no obvious function.  In other words, a behaviour that is repeated over and over again (for long periods of time without stopping) in the same pattern and is of no apparent use/function to the animal.

A good example is the bear in the zoo who paces up and down.  Pacing serves him no function, yet he continues to do this for hours on end.  The horse who door kicks (not food related door kicking), or bangs his chin against the door.  These behaviours serve no function for the horse, however they can be physically damaging to the horse.

The one function that scientists have shown that stereotypies has is; to alleviate stress.  Which is why we should not ignore a stereotypy no matter how insignificant it appears.  Because the behaviour is somehow alleviating stress for the animal, it is also critical that we do not try to stop the behaviour.

Stopping Stereotypies

If you stop the behaviour, you will simply be preventing the animal from trying to cope.  Instead we need to look at ways to reduce the stress in the animal´s life.

There are lots of gadgets on the market to prevent horses performing their stereotypies, such as, wind sucking collars (some horses can wind suck with these on and so some have spikes on them to jab in to the horses neck), anti-weave bars (often the horse will simply weave with his head behind the door if he is prevented from having his head over the door) etc.

If these are used for a horse with a stereotypy, we often see the behaviour reduce in severity and sometimes go away.  However, the source of the problem has not been dealt with and so if you look carefully, you will see the horse perform other behaviours to help them deal with their stress.  When you take the gadget away, the behaviour comes back….worse than before !

At S.M.A.A.R.T. Horses, we believe it is important to deal with the source of a problem, rather than the symptoms of a problem.  Much the same as; if you get indigestion as a result of something you ate, you can reduce the indigestion with medication, but it won’t go away until the food is no longer in your stomach.  If you eat the food again, the indigestion will come back.

The indigestion is a symptom of something you ate that did not agree with you.  A stereotypy is a result of something that the horse is exposed to that makes it anxious.  We need to remove/change the thing that makes the horse anxious, this alleviates the stress and therefore the stereotypy reduces/stops.

If you are concerned about a stereotypy, it is important that you seek professional advice to carefully manage it.