Behavioural Consequences of Stress



Stress in horses can have some serious behavioural consequences, which we will look at in a little more detail now.

1.  Crib-biting and wind-sucking

Crib biting and wind-sucking often occur together.  The horse grips an object with its upper incisor teeth, arches its neck and pulls backwards, often making a characteristic grunt thought to be the horse swallowing air (hence the term windsucker). 

Crib-biting on a fence post

Causes of crib-biting and wind-sucking

Crib biting and wind-sucking have clearly been shown to be stress responses of particular horses as they struggle to cope with unacceptable environments.   A lack of roughage (ie. grass or hay) in combination with insufficient exercise or free time out of the stable, seriously predispose horses to these behavioural problems.

The idea that cribbing and wind-sucking can be learnt or copied is not proven.  If you are looking for a reason why more than one horse in a particular stable block displays these behaviours, look to the management of the horses rather than the horses themselves.

Like the situation in humans, where nervous parents often have highly strung children, the same thing occurs with horses.  Thus the offspring of a wind-sucker may also develop the habit.  If well managed though, this behaviour may never appear, but as soon as the horse is stressed there is an increased likelihood of this happening.

An ethical dilemma

Wind-sucking results in the release of feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, to which the horse becomes addicted.  These are the same chemicals released in humans after eating chocolate, exercising etc.

As you know,  wind-sucking is a stress response, ie; a method the horse uses to cope with his/her environment.  The question we need to ask is, is it cruel to punish a horse with a painful gadget (such as a wind-sucking collar) if this is his/her method of coping with stress?  

2.  Weaving

Weaving is the name given to a side-to-side rocking of the head, shoulders and sometimes even the whole body of the horse.  Many people believe it occurs in response to a desire to move forward that is stifled by the horse being locked up in a stable.

Unfortunately we do not know much about what motivates a weaver, and this makes prevention difficult.  Unlike the wind-sucker there is no chemical addiction to endorphins, but it is nonetheless a very compulsive behaviour.  

Ultimately though it will only present itself in horses who are stressed for some reason, most likely due to insufficient exercise when they are stabled for long periods of time.




TAFE NSW Commission January 2002  Version - 1.0 (of this page)

Last saved by 03/06/2004