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Reducing stereotypies in horses


A stereotypy is a sequence of repetitive movements carried out with no obvious function. The sequence could be short or long/complex as sterotypies come in many forms. Examples of horse stereotypies are:

  • Weaving - the horse rocks left and right on their front legs

  • Crib biting - they seize fixed objects with their teeth, pull back and grunt while taking air down the oesophagus

  • Wind sucking - similar to crib-biting only they don’t hold on to a fixed object

  • Pacing - they pace up and down an area e.g. fence line 

  • Box walking - they walk in circles around the stable

  • Pawing with their front leg

  • Stable kicking

  • Rubbing

  • Wall licking

  • Head shaking 

  • Nodding

  • Wood chewing

  • Crib-whetting  - they hold their tongue firmly across the stable door.

  • Self mutilation - they repeatedly bite their own flank.

Please note that some of these behaviours may be normal behaviours e.g. rubbing. However, it would be abnormal if the behaviours duration, intensity and frequency were excessive.

Photo: Amanda Badnell-Waters

Stereotypies are not seen in feral equines e.g. prezwalski horses. However, they can develop in these feral species once they are captured and confined (11). They are a red flag to mark severe, chronic stress. Stereotypies are an animal's way of coping with the stress of an unnatural environment. 


Stereotypies are caused by poor management practices, specifically:


Social isolation: 

  • Horses who have social contact with other horses are less likely to develop a stereotypy (5).

  • In a study weaving stopped when horses had access to other horses on all 4 sides of their stable (2)

  • Horses who perform a sterotypie are sometimes socially isolated from other horses so that they aren’t ‘copied’. Stereotypies cannot be copied; the reality is horses in the same stressful environment are likely to react in a similar way. ‘Rather than being picked up from the horses such stable vices may be picked up from the stable itself’ (1).



  • As you increase the time spent stabled, so does the risk of a stereotypy being present (12).

  • Foals housed in individual boxes are more likely to weave or box walk (16).


Frustrated motivations:

  • The stereotypy itself is often a clue as to the main stressor that the horse is suffering. Movement related behaviours relate to the horses need to move and are frustrated escape responses (5). Whereas oral stereotypies are more likely caused by an incorrect diet and the behaviours associated with that e.g. not grazing for 16 hours a day.

  • Sterotypies are often triggered by stressful/arousing situations, like feed time when the horses goals are thwarted e.g. they want to eat their feed but they are stuck in the stable and cannot walk over to it.


Abnormal feeding practices and deprivation: 

  • Less than 6.8kg of forage per day increases the likelihood of stereotypes developing (14).

  • Wood chewing is partly due to a lack of cellulose in the diet (3).

  • Wood chewing increases in high protein diets (18).

  • Absence of a salt lick can increase crib-whetting (3).


Having no control over their own environment:

  • Stereotypies are associated with environments which are threatening and an inability to escape (19).  

  • Over or under-stimulation in their environment can increase stereotypies.

  • Aversive training causes distress. 



  • After weaning giving them concentrate feeds makes them four times more likely  to crib-bite and feeding haylage increases the risk of wood chewing (10).

  • Foals weaned in social isolation and fed concentrate feeds had level 5 ulceration in their stomach within 2-4 weeks. This caused them to crib-bite in an attempt neutralise their acidic stomach (10).

  • Foals abruptly weaned before they are ready are more likely to develop an oral stereotypie due to their motivation to suckle (11).


If both parents have a stereotypy this gives the foal an 89% chance of them also developing one (9).  Ideally, we should not breed from horses with a stereotypy. However, genetics is no reason to write off a sterotypie as inevitable. There may be a genetic tendency to develop a stereotypy, however whether they do become a stereotypic horse will depend on their environment and it can be avoided (6).


Inside the body:

  • Some steroeotypies are carried out as they release pain relieving and feel-good chemicals. (16)

  • Gastric ulcers may play a part in crib-biting and wind-sucking as they produce saliva which helps to neutralise an acidic stomach.   

  • A lowered heart rate has been recorded in crib-biters while they crib (13)

  • Sterotypies show electrical activity in the brain similar to dozing (19).  

  • When crib-biting dopamine may activate a reward mechanism (11).

  • Crib-biters develop uneven tooth wear making eating difficult and are at risk of colic and a low bodyweight (11).

  • Weaving causes damage to the hooves and musculoskeletal system and box-walking in one direction is likely to cause lateralised atrophy and hypertrophy of the lumbar musculature (11).


Gadgets, electric shocks and surgery are often recommended as a way of stopping  horses performing stereotypies. These should be avoided as:

  • Being unable to perform their steroetypy will cause more stress, as you have removed their way of trying to cope. 

  • The gadgets mask the symptoms of the problem; they do not help cure the cause.

  • They cause pain or discomfort and are inhumane.

  • Horses prevented from performing a stereotypy often become aggressive (5)

  • If you stop them performing one stereotypy they may develop a different one (5) e.g. if there is no surface to crib on horses may either crib on their own knee (3) or will wind-suck instead

  • They may only exaggertate the behaviour. For example with cribbing, when collars are used and then removed, the horses perform crib-biting at a higher rate than before the collar was fitted (15).

Due to conditioning, the longer a horse has been performing a stereotypy the more entrenched it is. If sterotypies have been occurring for a long time, even with a change in management they may continue as a scar of what has gone on before (16). Also a stereotypy may return if the horse finds themself in a stressful situation again.


So what can you do to reduce or stop your horse performing a stereotypy?

  • Make sure they have social contact with other horses 24/7.The more social contact a horse has the less likely they are to have a sterotypy.

  • Grills and open spaces between stables allowing contact between horses reduce weaving and nodding (2)

  • Get them out of the stable and instead use the                                       with horses living in permanent herds.

  • The more they are turned out in a field the better.

  • Provide horses with the biggest area to roam that you can.

  • Feed and turn a stereotypic horse out first to limit their frustration. 

  • Provide ad lib grass and hay. Spread the hay out in many piles for them to move in-between and ideally in long trails to enable them to move while they eat.

  • Provide logs and branches for them to browse on.

  • Provide a salt lick.

  • Give them a high-fibre diet free from cereals.

  • Provide straw bedding as other materials increase the risk of a stereotypy (14)

  • Foals should be weaned by their mothers and separated gradually once they are at least 1 year old. At the time of weaning the foals should be kept out at pasture with a herd of close peers and older horses.

  • Ensure that the horse enjoys their training and is not fearful, confused or frustrated.

  • Ensure that your horse does not have gastric ulcers.

  • If your horse continues to crib-bite provide a cushioned surface to protect them from  incisor wear. (11)

  • Protect them from anything that causes them disstress.



I understand this article may be heavy reading, but horses suffering with a stereotypy really are struggling, desperate and exhausted. They are crying out for help and we must listen. 


We have the tools to reduce or eliminate stereotypes in our horses today and to make sure that stereotypies do not occur in the next generation! Please share far and wide so that more horses can benefit  as their owners learn why and how to help them.


  1. Budiansky, S (1997) The nature of horses, Butler & Tanner Ltd, Great Britain

  2. Cooper JJ, McDonald L, Mills DS. The effect of increasing visual horizons on stereotypic weaving: implications for the social housing of stabled horses. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2000; 69:67–83. 

  3. Fraser, A (2010 2nd Ed) The behaviour of the horse, CABI, Wallingford

  4. Goodwin, D & Davidson, HPB & Harris, P (2002) Foraging enrichment for stabled horses: effects on behaviour and selection, Equine Vet Journal, 34, pp686-691

  5. Kiley-Worthington, M (1987)The behaviour of horses: in relation to management and training, JA Allen, London 

  6. Kiley-Worthington, M (1997) Equine Welfare, J.A.Allen, GB

  7. Houpt, KA & McDonnell, SM (1993) Equine sterotypies, The compendium, 15, pp1265-1272

  8. Lebelt D, Zanella AJ, Unshelm J. Physiological correlates associated with cribbing behaviour in horses: changes in thermal threshold, heart rate, plasma beta-endorphin and serotonin. Equine Vet J Suppl 1998; 27:21–27. 

  9. Marsden (1995) cite Simpson, H (2010 ) EBQ Stage 1

  10. Nicol, C & Walters, A (2002) Factors influencing the development of stereotypic behaviours in young horses: findings of a four year prospective epidemiological study, Equine Veterinary Journal, 34, pp572-579 

  11. McGreevy, P (2004) Equine behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh

  12. McGreevy, P & French, NP & Nicol, CJ (1995) The prevalence of abnormal behaviours in dressage, eventing and endurance horses in relation to training, Veterinary record, 13, pp36-37

  13. McGreevy, P & Nicol, C (1998) Physiological and behavioural consequences associated with short-term prevention of crib-biting in horses, Physiology of Behaviour, 65, pp15-23

  14. McGreevy, P & Cripps, French, NP et al (1995) Management factors associated with stereotypic and redirected behaviour in the thoroughbred, Equine Vet Journal, 27, pp86-91

  15. McGreevy PD, Nicol CJ. The effect of short term prevention on the subsequent rate of crib-biting in Thoroughbred horses. Equine Vet J Suppl 1998; 27:30–34.

  16. Mills, D & Nankervis, K (1999) Equine Behaviour: Principles & Practices, Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford

  17. Minero M, Canali E, Ferrante V, Verga M, Ödberg FO. Heart rate and behavioural responses of crib-biting horses to two acute stressors. Vet Rec 1999; 145(15):430–433. 

  18. Ralston SL, van den Brock G, Baile CA. Feed intake patterns and associated blood glucose free fatty acid and insulin changes in ponies. J Anim Sci 1979; 49:838–845.

  19. Simpson, H (2010 ) Equine Behaviour Qualification Stage 1

  20. Waring, G (2003) Horse Behaviour 2nd Ed, Noys Publications, USA 



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