Unwanted Behaviors in Horses


Horses can develop bad habits and vices the same way we take up things like smoking. These unwanted behaviors include wood chewing, cribbing, head shaking and stall weaving and can quite quickly become a proverbial pain in the hindquarters for any rider.

Unwanted behaviors: habit or vice?
Habit generally implies doing something regularly, unconsciously and often compulsively. Vices, on the other hand, are abnormal or unwanted behaviors detrimental to health or usefulness.

Cribbing, head shaking, weaving, stall walking and wind-sucking (technically called aerophagia, the most annoying form of cribbing) would certainly all be considered vices. They become serious, ugly faults, and are detrimental to the horse’s usefulness. They are behavioral (even psychological) vices, and are deeper issues than habits such as wood chewing, pawing or tail rubbing.

Causes are multi-faceted
In Italy, a study was done on over one thousand Thoroughbreds. It showed that cribbing, weaving and stall walking each occur in about 2.5% of the equine population. The researchers suggested that a genetic factor may be involved, since the offspring of cribbing mares became cribbers themselves about 25% of the time. However, most riders believe that cribbing starts when other horses mimic a cribber via “observational learning”. So is this vice genetic, an observed habit, or something else? The truth is, no one knows!

My personal feeling is that cribbing is:

• Somewhat genetic
• Somewhat learned
• Related to nutritional deficiencies and imbalances.

Stress is no doubt a factor too. Stress and bad diets, in particular, lead to ulcers. Ulcers lead to pain. Pain and emotional upset require some form of relief. Humans turn to drugs. Horses turn to cribbing and other unwanted behaviors. One study showed that various drugs, specifically narcotics, eliminated cribbing, stall weaving and head shaking in horses, but that the vices returned when the drugs were stopped. It is has also been documented that the cribbing process causes a euphoric, drug-like effect for the horse.

I think I would prefer using nutrition rather than drugs to solve the problem, wouldn’t you?

A nutritional resolution
Let’s face it – some horses’ diets are awful. I blame commercial feeds, agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetic modification for many of the problems today’s horses face.

Correcting any deficiencies or imbalances in vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids can make a big difference when it comes to unwanted behaviors. I have also found that feeding supplemented oats, rather than commercial feed, is a huge help. The problem with commercial feed is that, unless your horse is the “ideal horse”, he will get either too little or too much of all the added “goodies” in the feed.

With oats, you only need to feed as much as the particular horse needs. For instance, easy keepers need only a small amount, while hard keepers need a lot. You can put your supplements directly onto the oats, thereby ensuring the horse gets what he needs, rather than too much or too little. If you think about it, oats are the closest thing to natural seed heads, and directly adding vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids to them only makes sense.

Free choice salt and minerals
If a horse does not get what he needs from his feed, he is going to try to get it elsewhere. He may:

• chew on fencing or his stall
• eat dirt

• chew on salt/mineral blocks
• munch on any other surface that he can eventually begin to crib on.

Horses simply cannot get all the salt and minerals they need from a block of any kind. They are not “lickers”, like cows. Horses will often over-consume from chewing on salt/mineral blocks; in other words, they will get too much of what they don’t need in order to get what they do need.

I prefer natural sources of salt and minerals. I offer them free choice in a loose form so the horses can get all they need, when they need it. Just offering your horse free choice minerals will help many cribbing, wood chewing, and tail rubbing problems. And it is a much more economical approach than drugs for subsequent ulcers!

Head shaking and stall weaving
I personally feel that these particular unwanted behaviors are environmental toxin problems. Processed hydrogenated fats, pesticides, herbicides, and even toxins from dewormers are to blame (in my not so humble opinion). Correcting your horse’s nutrition is paramount, of course, but detoxing with appropriate antioxidants and herbs has helped tremendously in many cases.

There is hope
Unwanted behaviors are difficult to fix, but it is possible if we look to the cause rather than just focus on symptoms. Even the genetic component could be addressed by selective breeding, although merely suggesting this causes some tempers to flare. Fortunately, it seems that most habits and vices are not genetic, but rather environmental and nutritional. It is also fortunate that these can be addressed, and that success rates are fair.


After graduating from Auburn School of Veterinary Medicine in 1980, Dr. Dan Moore completed the Professional Course in Veterinary Homeopathy and the Advanced Course in Veterinary Homeopathy. Dr. Moore is the founder and developer of www.thenaturalhorsevet.net, an online source of information, products and services about natural and complementary alternatives for horses, and the co-owner of Rosehill Farm, breeder of Rocky Mountain Horses. He is also a representative for the Tennessee Horse Council. For more information, call 1-877-873-8838.

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