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The effect of feeding and stable management on stereotypic behaviors in horses

Horse biting stall

Many horses demonstrate abnormal behavior patterns as a result of domestic management practices1. These abnormal behaviors are termed ‘stereotypic’ and tend to be repeated and predictable in their occurrence. Horses typically demonstrate either oral (e.g. cribbing, windsucking, licking, sham-chewing), redirected (e.g. bed eating, coprophagy) or locomotory (e.g. weaving, box-walking) stereotypic behaviors. Stereotypic behaviors are widely reported to indicate poor welfare2 and are linked to boredom, stress and/or frustration in the housing and management environment.

The impact of feeding and stable management practices on the prevalence of equine stereotypic behaviors in Malaysia were recently examined3. Data were collected for 207 horses (aged from 7 to 25 years; 117 geldings and 90 mares) housed individually in seven different stabling facilities. Information about routine management and exercise regimes was obtained and feeding practices were explored by examining feed type, amount fed and frequency of feeding. Work undertaken by study horses included leisure riding, urban patrolling, polo, equestrian sports, and endurance. The occurrence and prevalence of abnormal behaviors were recorded during daylight every 10 minutes for 12 hours, over three days. Time spent exercising, lying down, standing dozing, and standing alert was also recorded.

A total of 525 abnormal behavior events were recorded during the study. The occurrence of oral stereotypic behaviors (54%; n = 281) were highest followed by redirected behaviors (34%; n = 181) and locomotory stereotypies (12%; n = 63). Sham-chewing was the most frequent oral stereotypy recorded (184/525; 35.05%) and head tossing/nodding the most frequent locomotory stereotypy (23/525; 4.38%). Bed eating was the highest redirected behavior and was observed in most study horses (153/525; 29.14%). The prevalence of abnormal behaviors, especially oral stereotypies was significantly associated with exercise time, amount of hay and concentrate fed (p < 0.05). . Horses working for more than 8 hours per week had the highest number of abnormal behaviors. Horses fed higher levels of concentrate feed also had a high incidence of abnormal behaviors. However, as the amount of hay fed increased, the prevalence of oral stereotypic behaviors decreased.

Management and feeding practices directly influence the incidence and prevalence of abnormal, stereotypic behaviors in horses. Adopting practices, notably dietary, that reduce their prevalence is likely to be beneficial for equine well-being.

1. Sarrafchi, A. and Blokhuis, H.J. (2013). Equine stereotypic behaviours: causation, occurrence, and prevention. J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res. 8, 386-394

2. Hothersall, B. and Casey, R. (2011). Undesired behaviour in horses: a review of their development, prevention, management, and association with welfare. Equine Vet Educ. 24, 479-485

3. Hanis, F., Chung, E.L.T., Kamalludin, M.H. and Idrus, Z. (2020). The influence of stable management and feeding practices on the abnormal behaviours among stabled horses in Malaysia. J Equine Vet Sci. 94, 103230

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