Sunday 26 January 2014

Stereotypic Behaviour in Horses (Video)

If you've been around horses for a while, you'll probably have seen a stereotypic behaviour or two (traditionally known, awfully, as stable vices). You may, for example, have seen wind-sucking, crib-biting or weaving.

Many horses show less obvious and less easily identified stereotypic behaviours. I often see small stereotypic behaviours in client’s horses, which the client has either not really noticed, or just taken to be random meaningless behaviour. I have seen several horses being punished for these behaviours, one under the guidance of a riding instructor at a clinic.

So, in brief:
·         Any repetitive, relatively invariant and apparently functionless action is probably a stereotypy.
·         This includes crib-biting, wind-sucking and weaving, but there are many others
·         These behaviours are triggered by arousal, for example frustration, excitement, acute or chronic stress or pain
·         These behaviours can sometimes be physically supressed, which will generally be very stressful for the horse.
·         Performing the behaviour is a reward in itself, so they cannot be corrected by punishment.

Stereotypies such as the one shown in the video are usually harmless. Flynn, the horse in the video, behaves as shown for a minute or two when he is anticipating his breakfast! He will also do this if he is worried. In his case, it doesn’t take much arousal to trigger this behaviour; as you can see in the video, he doesn’t look wildly excited by the prospect of breakfast but he’s still excited enough to trigger the behaviour.

With clients I’ve often found these behaviours to be useful (when they are infrequent and not harmful)   – for example:
·         A reported increase in performance of the stereotypy is a warning there may be a physical problem before it is otherwise obvious.
·         It’s an early warning sign during training that the horse is becoming a bit stressed, again often before any other physical signs are easily seen
·         If a change in management leads to an increase in this behaviour, you know your horse isn’t too thrilled with the changes! Your horse can give you very clear and early feedback about his welfare.
·         In general, it gives you information about how your horse is feeling, before they have to tell you in less subtle ways, which is always a good thing.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Trigger Stacking and horses (is your horse really 'fine' or just 'manageable'?)

Quite often, clients come to me confused as to why their horse suddenly 'exploded' at something they usually seem to cope with. This short video (about dogs, but equally applicable to horses) gives a very clear explanation of one of the causes for unexpected behaviour.

Trigger Stacking & Stress Hormones Video

So certain events may arouse (for example excite or worry) your horse somewhat, but he doesn't react in an extreme way. If several things happen close together, it all gets to much - and he 'explodes'.

This may sound really obvious, and most of us are aware of examples of this - say you want to compete your young horse - you don't introduce him to travelling in a trailer, going to a strange new place, and competing all in the same morning! At least you probably don't do it twice ...

The smaller incidents can confuse people. To take a fairly recent example, we have a young cob called Freddy. Access to Freddy's yard is blocked one day, and the farrier is coming. His owner takes him down to a quiet farm track for the farrier to shoe him. He's a little fidgety, but 'fine'. The farrier arrives, and Freddy is a bit more 'difficult' than usual, but can still be handled. As the farrier is putting on his second shoe, a tractor comes into view. Freddy 'explodes' - neither his owner nor the farrier can hold him, and he takes off for home, half-shod. The owner is mystified - he's never behaved like that before.

On initial questioning, Freddy is reported to be 'fine' with the farrier usually, fine on his own, and good with traffic. With more detailed questioning, we find that Freddy is actually:

* a little worried when separated from other horses, a bit nappy hacking out alone but manageable
* a little uncomfortable with the farrier, but the farrier always manages to get him shod
* a little worried by tractors; he will 'scoot' past them on the road, then settle down.

So - it's trigger stacking.