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Stall Vices Linked to Digestive Discomfort in HorsesBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 9, 2017

Horses evolved wandering miles each day and grazing in herds. Now, many horses lead a very different life, spending most of their time in stalls, eating two large meals a day, and having little contact with other horses.

This shift from migratory foraging to stationary meal-eating can cause disturbances in health and behavior. For example, long-term solitary stall confinement can lead to boredom and separation anxiety. Large meals filled with concentrates cause problems such as hindgut acidosis and ulcers, and these issues can cause or exacerbate stall vices. The most common stall vices include:

Cribbing: The horse latches its teeth onto a hard surface, arches its neck, and pulls back, often making a grunting sound. This habit is especially difficult to eliminate because the horse is thought to experience an endorphin rush while performing the vice. Cribbing may be caused by dietary imbalances, gastrointestinal discomfort, or boredom.

Pawing: The horse repeatedly strikes one or more of its hooves on the ground. This may lead to stall damage and the wearing down of hooves. Pawing may indicate discomfort, boredom, or anxiety.

Stall-walking: The horse paces from side to side or in circles in its stall. This can be a sign of abdominal discomfort, or it may be another manifestation of anxiety.

Weaving: The horse moves its head and neck from side to side in a rhythmic, though often frenzied, fashion. In rarer instances, a horse may exaggerate the movement, making complete circles with its head and neck.  This vice is often caused by separation from other horses.

Wood-chewing: The horse gnaws on wooden stall boards or fence planks. This can be a sign that there isn’t enough long-stem forage in the diet. The vice can also arise from boredom.

Once stall vices develop, it is difficult to control them completely. Environmental and dietary changes can help, however. Allowing a horse to have contact with other horses in a pasture setting each day can reduce anxiety and boredom. It will also allow a horse to release extra energy that is being misdirected in the stall.

Dietary issues, as mentioned before, can cause issues such as hindgut acidosis, a condition in which sugars and starches are fermented in the hindgut rather than digested in the small intestine, which leads to a drop in pH.

For some horses, modifying their diet to include more long-stem forage and fewer concentrate feeds will fix the problem. For others—especially sport horses that require large amount of digestible energy—dietary supplements can help. EquiShure, a product developed by Kentucky Equine Research (KER), addresses hindgut acidosis. It utilizes encapsulation technology to ensure that buffering agents reach the hindgut, where it aids in proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Because hindgut acidosis can make horses uncomfortable, which can lead to stable vices, the use of EquiShure will often help assuage stereotypies.

Vices should be addressed as soon as possible, and often changes in feeding management will help curb undesirable habits.