WHOLE HORSE Q&
Mare Slams Her Stall Wall
Analyze clues to learn what causes this self-destructive behavior, then plot a strategy
My 13 year-old Standardbred mare Daisy lost her original barn buddy four years ago; now she shares the barn with a Missouri Fox Trotter gelding. Lately she's begun heaving herself against the common stall wall, which we've had to rebuild and reinforce. She'll jump, buck, kick, and bounce off the wall. I've tried coaxing, yelling, and startling her when she does it. I've put up a tack strip and hung milk jugs along the wall. Nothing deters her. Why is she doing this, and how can I get her to stop?
Amy Chmielewski, Michigan
A Stalled horses can exhibit this behavior for various reasons: discomfort or pain caused by such things as biting flies or gastric ulcers; being defensive and
"protecting" food or space from a human, horse, or other animal; separation distress when isolated from a particular companion or all other horses; and frustration, due to anticipation of a de-
sired event (feeding, turnout) or limited mental and physical stimulation (social interactions, exercise, foraging). Wild horses spend most of their time looking for food, eating, and interacting with each other; in the stabled environment, by contrast, horses often find themselves with nothing to do—because food is provided and quickly consumed, plus they're separated from other horses.
When and how a horse displays this wall-banging behavior may provide clues as to motivation. For example, gastric-ulcer pain may be worst on an empty stomach or around grain feeding. Lack of stimulation may cause problem behaviors when the horse isn't otherwise occupied. Pain or acute distress may cause the behaviors even during eating, drinking, or sleep periods.
Punishment and physical restraints don't address the underlying motivation. Though they may seem to stop the behavior in the moment, they typically don't reduce its frequency. When general frustration and lack of stimulation are the causes,
the behavior may actually be a coping mechanism, and punishment or physical prevention without addressing the under-
lying motivation(s) may just increase the horse's stress, making the situation worse. In Daisy's case, possible causes relating to the barn-mate change are aggression toward the gelding (fear, defense of her stall or food), or an unmet need for social interaction with him. Other motivations could be decreased exercise or increased work causing stress, changes in turnout or feeding, or aggression or frustration related to the presence of new individuals (another rider, someone's dog).
I recommend having your veterinarian evaluate and treat Daisy for any cause of pain. Remove any physical deterrents (tacks, milk jugs), and stop all punishments. Keep a log of her behavior (consider, if possible, videotaping her when you aren't there) to identify and minimize triggers/problem contexts. Also, increase her social, foraging, and environmental enrichment. Provide hay or access to grass at all times. Use feeding toys (commercially available, or poke holes in your milk jugs to make feeders) loaded with pellets. Allow contact with the gelding, if the two don't appear likely to injure each other—maybe let them put their heads out over stall guards, take the top boards out of the dividing wall between them, or turn them out together.
In addition, turn your mare out as much as possible, and consider opening a window in the barn to allow her to see outside. You might also explore something like clicker training; this will also increase her mental stimulation.
MARYKLINCK, DVM, DACVB
Clinician, Behavioral Medicine
PhD Candidate, Veterinary Sciences
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Montreal
HOW ABOUT NOT STALLING YOUR HORSE AT ALL. PUT HER OUTSIDE 24/7 WITH A FEW OTHER HORSES - Keith Hunt
For a discussion of what motivates horses to do what they do, with comments from behavioral experts, search primary categories of equine behavior at HorseandRider.com.