At this time of year, many horses spend longer periods stabled, so stereotypic behaviour such as weaving and crib biting becomes more prevalent. Researchers now say that traditional deterrents such as anti-weave grilles and cribbing collars can cause more harm than they prevent, so many owners look for alternatives.
Turning horses out as much as possible is recommended, and larger paddocks may be more beneficial. Professor Daniel Mills, a vet and specialist in animal behaviour at the University of Lincoln, says that reduced exercise may be linked to weaving and box walking, and that horses kept in paddocks of less than 1.5 hectares do not show the full range of equine social behaviour.
Ad lib forage is often recommended for stabled horses. Prof Mills also suggests putting “feeding stations” around the box instead of feeding in one place every day. Food balls encourage the horse to spend more time foraging and stable mirrors can help when it is not possible to provide grilles, allowing contact between horses in adjacent stables.
“Mirrors seem to be more effective with box walking than weaving,” says Dr Mills.
Experiments at the university have also shown that large posters of horses can also have a calming effect.
Although we don’t know what causes crib biting, there may be a link to acids in the stomach, and antacid supplements are now available. Tolerance may also pay dividends: Cheryl Gilson, who describes her crib biting Thoroughbred as “a typical neurotic ex-flat racehorse,” found a sympathetic livery yard owner who did not insist on isolating her horse or stipulating that he wore a collar.
“Cutting a section from an old tyre and fastening it across the door prevents damage to it and his teeth,” she says. “When he isn’t physically prevented from cribbing, he actually does it less.”
Weavers and box walkers can put strain on their limbs.
“Put an opening at the back of the stable to give the horse a wider view and use rubber matting,” advises Jane Doughty, who buys horses out of training to reschool and sell.
Rubber matting on the floor and coconut matting on the door are Jane’s tips for horses that paw the ground and bang the door.
“If banging and scraping doesn’t make a noise, they’ll often stop,” she finds.
Kelly Watts bought a six-year-old warmblood as a potential show jumper and was told that he weaved badly. She decided that because he did the job she wanted she thought she could put up with what he did in his spare time. However, she found the answer by accident.
“We bought a few chickens and let them wander round the yard in the daytime,” she says. “He seems to enjoy watching them scratching about and now only weaves when he sees you bringing his food.”
This tricks of the trade feature was first published in Horse & Hound (25 November, ’04)