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Medical Index
First Posted: July 6, 2010
Mar 25, 2015

Behavioral Problems in Horses

by Debora Johnson

There are many types of behavioral problems in horses. Below is a list of some of the most common types of behavioral problems that develop in our equine friends. This will be an ongoing article as I continue to develop all of the categories listed below.

  1. Aggression to People or Savagery - Horses that show aggression towards humans may be too dangerous to keep. There are a number of reasons that horses show this aggression toward humans: sexual, fear, physical abuse, harsh treatment, being kept in a dark stall for long periods of time (can cause night blindness), dyscontrol that may be caused by a neurological problem or dominance issues. It is thought that there may be a genetic component to these behaviors. Horses that show this savagery behavior should not be bred. Also studies have shown that horses who are in chronic pain show aggression. Link Between Chronic Pain and Aggression in Horses Identified
  2. Aggression to Horses - When horses show aggression toward each other the behavior can usually be attributed to sex, fear or a dominance. Just like people, horses have their likes and dislikes and may behave accordingly--some are ill-tempered, quick to fight, dominant or submissive (horses have a pecking order within the herd), flighty, afraid, etc. In a herd there is a hierarchy.
  3. Anorexia - "Horses form close affiliative attachments with other horses, and anorexia can be associated with changes in these relationships. The most common situation involves separation anxiety in the absence of a preferred equine companion. Addressing the underlying social problem through social facilitation is critical, and treatment with anxiolytic drugs that may also stimulate appetite (eg, benzodiazepines such as diazepam) can help. Foals usually feed when the mare feeds. During the first month, foals graze only 5 min/hr, but this increases to 45 min/hr by 6 mo of age. Accordingly, weaning methods may be important to prevent anorexia in young horses. Aggressive mares may attack foals that try to share food. Barriers should be erected that safely permit normal development and feeding patterns. Foals may not eat the same plant or same plant part as the mare, and the parts they choose may be based on the height of the plant. Management should address this problem. Creep feeders should be placed near the mare so that the foal does not have to choose between food and contact with its dam. Foals on pasture and those that are nursing do not drink water, but the mares need access to good, clean water." Liver problems have also been associated with anorexia in horses.
  4. Bark eating/Wood chewing
  5. Biting
  6. Boredom
  7. Breeding Aggression
  8. Claustrophobia
  9. Coprophagia
  10. Cribbing
  11. Diet Improper (not enough roughage) - Diets that are deficient can cause many behavioral and medical of problems in horses. Likewise, diets that are too rich can also cause many behavioral and medical problems in horses. For information on the proper diet for horses follow this link: What Horses Need in Their Diet
  12. Foal Rejection - "...There is thought to be a genetic component to the rejection problem, both familial and breed tendencies, since a good portion of the cases have involved the Arabian breed. (1,4) A mare's temperament is also believed to be important as it is seen more often in nervous mares. (5) Rejection is seen primarily in maiden mares, thus the dam's experience seems to play a key role in determining foal acceptance. (1,4,5) Environmental disturbances, such as human interference or the presence of other animals, are also indicated in the causation. (3,5) The mare's general health is another factor to consider. A prolonged foaling period, sickness or exhaustion may result in a weak bond or prevent bonding all together. The effect of the mare's hormonal status has also been suggested, but not yet thoroughly studied. Altered levels of estrogens, progestins, oxytocin, prolactin, or prostiglandins have been indicated. (5) It has been found that the progesterone levels were lower before foaling and fell more rapidly after parturition in mares who reject their foals than that of normal mares. (1) The causes of this problem are diverse, thus a treatment must be determined on a basis of a combination of particular causes..." Follow this link to continue reading this excellent article on foal rejection: Foal Rejection
  13. Another excellent article: Foal Rejection
  14. Geldings that Act Like Stallions
  15. Kicking
  16. Bucking, rearing, bolting, spinning and shying
  17. Libido/Poor
  18. Loneliness
  19. Mounting/Intraspecific
  20. Nymphomania - "Nymphomaniac mares 'wink' (show clitoris), squat, and urinate frequently. Urine scalding is a real, secondary problem. Mating behaviors and those involved in solicitation are not considered abnormal if they occur every 21 days when the mares cycle. Treatments usually focus on the underlying physiologic correlates of the behaviors. Nymphomaniac mares should be checked for granulosa cell tumors. Treatment has involved the use of progestins and ovariohysterectomy. If behavior problems persist after ovariohysterectomy, the use of dexamethasone will suppress adrenal androgens." Granulosa-Theca Cell Tumors in the Mare
  21. Obesity
  22. Pawing
  23. Pica
  24. Psychic Estrus - For the purposes of HorseHints. org relates to a 'horse' who does not show the normal physiological correlates of ustrus. Estrus refers to the phase when the female is sexually receptive ("in heat," or "on heat"). Under regulation by gonadotropic hormones, ovarian follicles are maturing and estrogen secretions exert their biggest influence. She then exhibits a sexually receptive behavior[9], a situation that may be signaled by visible physiologic changes. A signal trait of estrus is the lordosis reflex, in which the animal spontaneously elevates her hindquarters.
  25. Stall Walking, Circling and Weaving - There are a number of reasons why horses will stall walk or circle. The following may be among them:
    1. Separation anxiety (from another horse)
    2. Stress
    3. Lack of exercise
    4. Unclean stall
    5. Imitating learned behavior

    Fixing the above problems can help with this behavioral problem. The use of toys in the stall can also help. Unfortunately, this behavior can become a compulsive disorder which is quite difficult to break. Follow the above link to my article on weaving for more comprehensive information.

  26. Trailering Problems
  27. Turnout/In a stall 24/7

Medical Index