Horses are magnificent creatures; however, a variety of behavior problems in horses can occur despite of the love we have for them. Some of the most common are associated with aggression towards us or other people, abnormal eating habits and undesirable behaviors in their stall.
Equine aggression towards people is quite similar to aggression seen in dogs based on fear or dominance. Fear can be caused by harsh treatment, physical abuse and night blindness associated with confinement in a dark stall. Horses that are aggressive towards people can often be too difficult or too dangerous to keep without professional intervention.
Using desensitization or counterconditioning with rewards for nonaggressive reactions can modify some aggressive behaviors. Rewards can include attention, exercise, and grooming, as well as frequent feedings of their favorite treats like apples with molasses. The purpose of frequent feedings is to mimic the natural pattern of frequent grazing, and for the horse to associate that with your presence. Another consideration is gelding (or neutering) your horse, because aggression appears to be hereditary and removing the sex hormones reduces many types of aggressive behaviors.
Horses have always preferred grooming with their grazing partners; however aggression towards other horses is often associated with fear or sex. Introducing horses to each other across one to two fences can help desensitize and countercondition them gradually, so they do not injure or hurt each other. A distance of two fences works better, so the horses do not get an opportunity to strike each other with their hooves.
Horses are used to grazing 12 to 14 hours per day, making wood chewing (or “cribbing”) a normal equine pattern of browsing. Most wood chewing occurs during the winter months, especially in horses that are fed a pellet diet. If a horse receives less than one kilo of hay per 100 kilograms of body weight, wood chewing can become extreme. To treat this condition, you should increase their hay, exercise them through work or increased pasture time. Boredom is often behind most cribbing behaviors. Eating feces is known as coprophagia and is quite normal behavior for foals during the first month of life, afer which this behavior finally decreases or stops altogether. If an adult horse eats feces, it is usually due to low roughage or lack of protein in the diet that can easily be corrected by increasing both.
Eating sand, soil or other food items can lead to serious or fatal digestive problems and should not be ignored. Obviously, horses eat some soil while grazing, and stabling can curtail this, as they are likely to seek other materials to consume. Concentrated feeds that are quickly eaten and lengthy periods of confinement can cause boredom leading to abnormal eating behaviors. Adding more roughage and salt blocks may help to detour this behavior.
Friendships are formed between horses, and a loss of appetite can occur if these relationships change, just like in humans. For example, if a horse is separated from their regular companion, they may stop eating altogether. Finding a solution to this problem is important. Your veterinarian can prescribe medication that stimulates appetite. A poor appetite in foals can be the result of an aggressive mare that might be trying to share the mother’s food attacking the foals. Barriers help to prevent this from occurring.
Aggression, eating problems, fear, wood chewing and stall problems can be solved with some simple strategies that will do wonders for the horse and give you some relief. Enjoying a relationship with your horse is one of life’s incredible pleasures. We need to do all we can to keep them happy and healthy.
Photo: Courtesy of Ivan McClellan via Flickr (CC by 2.0)