Stable Vices

Stable Vices are a subject very close to my heart, and I couldn’t have been more delighted - and relieved - when I found a therapy that would help to not just reduce these habits, but in most cases completely remove them.

Two of the first horses I worked with were stallions Renegade and Lorenzo. Renegade was a weaver, and had a huge big stallion attitude. He would weave constantly, and think nothing of taking a bite out of you if you happen to be stood in his way.

I started treating Renegade once a week. Each week there was some improvement to be seen. He became generally calmer, and easier to handle. I was delighted to find out that he’d not bitten the farrier, and was actually being quite affectionate. What a lovely ‘side effect’ of the therapy that was! Gaps between the weaving started to increase, and there were periods of time when he didn’t weave at all. After 8 weeks, he’d stopped.

Lorenzo was a box walker, and hadn’t been treated very well by his previous owner. His whole demeanour was sad and he was never relaxed. Again, other changes in behaviour were reported. He became less anxious about life in general, and there were pauses between the box walking that got longer and longer.

On the 6th session, he became slower and slower, until he just came to a halt right in front of my eyes, and fell asleep.

There’s a huge amount of differing opinions on stable vices but the general consensus (and the one I believe) is that they are a coping mechanism to deal with fear and stress. Horses are prey animals and their survival depends on their ability to be aware of and escape from predators. Part of being a herd and having space keeps them safe. When we take them away from that herd and put them into a small, confined area on their own, with no escape routes, it’s understandable they’re going to feel afraid. They can’t see what’s going on outside or around them. Their food is limited, and they have no idea how long they will be in there, or where their next lot of food is coming from. They may be able to see some of their friends from a distance, but not close enough to touch.

As natural grazers that spend between 16-18 hours a day foraging, and a fair bit of time on the move, it must feel pretty worrying when you've eaten all of the food in site and you've no idea when or where the next lot will come from. Of course, you know that you’ll be back in a few hours to top up their hay and let them out, and that they’re going to be safe. But they don’t!

So why is it only some horses develop these habits and not all of them? Surely if we’re treating all horses in the same way, and it’s ‘our fault,’ it stands to reason they would all be the same. Horses are just like us - all different - and will respond in varying ways, just like we do. Our own vices, bad habits and responses to stimulus are very influenced and moulded by how we have grown up and what we have been taught to believe. Some people are scared of spiders, others collect them. So if horses haven’t been treated well, weaned too early, or not been given the opportunity to just ‘be a horse’ they are more likely to develop a vice. Why they develop a certain vice rather than another is still unknown but it’s something I would certainly welcome more research on.

What seems to be evident is that these vices are man-made. I’ve yet to come across any research identifying any of these traits in natural herds. (If anyone can find any, please do let me know!) So we can confidently say that the way we keep and look after our horse is definitely the cause of the problem. Vets and Behaviourists/Trainers will all tell you to simply not stable them. Let them live out, with an unending supply of food and in the company of others, and they’ll be fine.

This is all well and good but our environment and lifestyle make this one step away from impossible. Who wants to do a three mile trek across an open moor to catch one pony out of a group of twenty, to go out for an hour’s ride? And what about all the looking after that we love to do for our horses, how can we achieve that if they're miles away from us?

The challenges faced to achieve this are far too many to be listed here, and are enough to make even the most determined of rider hang up their hat and take up knitting instead.

So that leaves you four options:

1. You can accept the behaviour and learn to live with it.

2. You can dismiss the behaviour. After all, if the horse is physically healthy, happy to be ridden and fine in all other ways, is it really a problem? The use of gadgets and bitter tasting ‘stuff’ and V-Grilles will stop the horse being able to do it, so it’ll be fine, right?

3. You can avoid buying a horse with a stable vice (unless one happens to fall into our stable without us being aware, and by the time we find out, we’ve already given our heart (and most of our finances) to this horse and couldn’t possibly bear to part with them. (A far more common occurrence than you may think.)

4. You can try to resolve it.

If you're an Option 4 person then you’ll have started with the vet, to check all is ok physically. You may even call out a physio or chiro just to be doubly sure.

If it’s a new horse you’ll have given them plenty of time to settle in to their new environment, and hoped the behaviour would either reduce enough for you to live with it - or just magically go away. If you’ve had your horse for years and they've always been like it, you’ll probably already have resigned yourself to becoming an Option 1 person, having worked hard to convince yourself the incessant noise/behaviour doesn't worry you, and there's nothing you can do anyway.

You may have decided to keep your horse out for most of the time, if you are fortunate enough to do so. But this just makes the problem worse when you do have to bring them in. A horse needing box rest is a nightmare when they are constantly walking or weaving or cribbing, and the recovery rate from the injury can be slower because of their stress.

Then there are the feelings of jealousy as you see others with their nice clean horses all quietly settled in their stable every night, while yours is stood by the field gate and you're agonising over which rug to use - that's assuming you've managed to get one dry. Not to mention the fear of missing out as your friends quickly tack up, having decided to do a spontaneous ride, and you need a good couple of hours' notice to catch your mud monster that's right down the far end of the field and reluctant to leave his pals.

All of that before we’ve even got to weight management, laminitis and mud fever, and of course field maintenance. It's a lot to deal with.

So then you try trainers...and behaviourists...prevention aids...calmers...supplements...boredom busters...mirrors...stabling them next to their best friend...

Nothing has worked.

At this stage you’ll probably have given up and become an Option 1 person. Because nothing else has worked. So what else can you do?

You can become an Option 4 person again. Message me and I will book you in for a ten minute, no obligation Discovery Call. You'll get a chance to ask me any questions you like, and tell me all about the issues you’re facing. I'll explain what I do and how it all works, and if you feel that it’s right for you and your horse, you can ask me to book you in for a session.

I cover Berkshire and some of the Hampshire and Surrey borders, with a small mileage charge for anywhere over 20 miles away from RG5.

Give me a call now on 087850 465 493 or email