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Vices in Horses – Description, Causes and Treatment

Horses are some of the kindest, most generous and trainable animal partners you can find.  That’s why when a horse does something ”bad”, it’s usually due to poor management or training.  In order to deal with vices and bad habits, we need to understand what causes them.  THEN we can design our horse care and training to PREVENT them.

How to Think Like a Horse by Cherry HillHow to Think Like a Horse by Cherry Hill

A vice is an abnormal behavior that usually shows up in the barn or stable environment that results from confinement, improper management, or lack of exercise.  A vice can affect a horse’s usefulness, dependability, and health.  Examples are cribbing, weaving, and self-mutilation.

A bad habit is an undesirable behavior that occurs during training or handling and is usually a result of poor techniques and a lack of understanding of horse behavior.  Examples are rearing, halter pulling, striking and kicking. (See previous posts on Bad Habits)

Horse for Sale, How to Buy a Horse or Sell the One You Have by Cherry Hill

Horse for Sale, How to Buy a Horse or Sell the One You Have by Cherry Hill

Vices in Horses
This chart is an excerpt from

Horse For Sale ©  2006 Cherry Hill

VICE

DESCRIPTION

CAUSES

TREATMENT

Cribbing Colic, poor keeper (prefers mind drugs over food).
Anchoring of incisors on edge (post, stall ledge), arching neck, gulping air.
Theory: endorphins are released during the behavior; horse is addicted to endorphins which stimulate pleasure center of brain. Incurable.
Cribbing strap prevents contraction of neck muscles; also available with clamps, spikes, electric shock.
Possible future pharmacological treatment.
Surgery possibleMuzzle can be used in some situations.
Pawing Digs holes; tips over feeders & waterers; gets leg caught in fence; wears hooves away, loses shoes; most often young horses. Confinement, boredom, excess feed. Curable.
Provide exercise, diversion, don’t use ground feeders and waterers, use rubber mats, don’t reinforce by feeding.
Formal restraint lessons.
Self Mutilation Bite flanks, front legs, chest, scrotal area with squealing, pawing, and kicking out. Onset 2 yrs, primarily stallions.
Can be endorphin addiction similar to cribbing; can be triggered by confinement, lack of exercise, or sexual frustration.
Manageable/might be curable.
Geld non-breeding stallions; increase exercise, reduce confinement, stall companion or toy, neck cradle, muzzle, possible future pharmacological treatment
Stall Kicking Smashing stall walls & doors with hind hooves resulting in facilities damage and hoof and leg injuries. Confinement; doesn’t like neighbor; gets attention. Can be curable depending on how long-standing the habit.
Increase exercise, change neighbors, pad stall walls or hooves, use kicking chains or kicking shoe, don’t reinforce by feeding.
Tail Rubbing Rhythmically swaying the rear against a fence or stall wall. Initially dirty udder, sheath or tail; shedding HQ, pinworms, ticks & other external parasites or skin conditions. Later, just habit. Manageable with grooming, cleaning sheath and udder, deworming, other medical treatments. For chronic habit, use electric fence.
Weaving/Pacing Swaying back and forth often by stall door or pen gate/Repeatedly walking a path back and forth. Confinement, boredom, excess feed, high strung or stressed horse. Manageable.
Turn out where he can see other horses.
Use specially fitted stall door for weaver.
Wood Chewing Gnawing of wood fences, feeders, stall walls, up to three pounds of wood per day. Lack of course roughage in diet, boredom, teething. Manageable.
Increase roughage in diet.
Decrease palatability of wood.
Increase exercise & activity.
More time out on pasture.

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Bad Habits in Horses

©  2010 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information

Horses are some of the kindest, most generous and trainable animal partners you can find.  That’s why when a horse does something “bad”, it’s usually due to poor management or training.  In order to deal with vices and bad habits, we need to understand what causes them.  THEN we can design our horse care and training to PREVENT them.

How to Think Like a Horse by Cherry Hill

How to Think Like a Horse by Cherry Hill

A vice is an abnormal behavior that usually shows up in the barn or stable environment that results from confinement, improper management, or lack of exercise.  A vice can affect a horse’s usefulness, dependability, and health.  Examples are cribbing, weaving, and self-mutilation. (see an upcoming post on Vices)

A bad habit is an undesirable behavior that occurs during training or handling and is usually a result of poor techniques and a lack of understanding of horse behavior.  Examples are rearing, halter pulling, striking and kicking.

Bad Habits in Horses
©  2002 Cherry Hill www.horsekeeping.com

HABIT

DESCRIPTION

CAUSES

TREATMENT

Balking Refusal to go forward often followed by violent temper if rider insists. Fear, heavy hands, stubbornness, extreme fatigue. Curable.
Review forward work with in-hand & longeing.
Turn horse’s head to untrack left or right.
Strong driving aids with no conflicting restraining aids (no pull on bit).
Do not try to force horse forward by pulling – you’ll lose.
Barn Sour
Herd Bound
Balking, rearing, swinging around, screaming and then rushing back to the barn or herd. Separation from buddies or barn (food, comfort). Curable but stubborn cases require professional.
A confident, capable trainer that insists the horse leave the barn (herd) and then positively reinforces the horse’s good behavior so horse develops confidence.
The lessons GO and WHOA must both be reviewed.
Biting Nibbling with lips or grabbing with teeth especially young horses. Greed (treats), playfulness (curiosity) or resentment (irritated or sore). Investigate things with mouth. Often from hand-feeding treats. Curable. Handle lips, muzzle, & nostrils regularly in a business-like way; when horse nips, tug on nose chain, then resume as if nothing happened.
Can also use thumb tack on sleeve; hold wire brush toward lips; use muzzle.
Bolting When Turned Loose Wheels away suddenly before halter is fully removed. Poor handling, anxious to exercise or join other horses. Curable but dangerous as horse often kicks as he wheels away.
Use treats on ground before you remove halter; use rope around the neck.
Bucking Arching the back, lowering the head, kicking with hind or leaping. High spirits, get rid of rider or tack, sensitive or sore back, reaction to legs or spurs. Monitor feed and exercise; proper progressive training; check tack fit.
Can’t Catch Avoids humans with halter and lead. Fear, resentment, disrespect, bad habit. Curable. Take time to properly train, use walk-down method in small area first, progress to larger. Remove other horses from pasture; treats on ground, never punish horse once caught.
Can’t Handle Feet Swaying, leaning, rearing, jerking foot away, kicking, striking. Insufficient or improper training. Horse hasn’t learned to cooperate, balance on 3 legs, take pressure and movement of farrier work. Curable but persistent cases require professional.
Thorough, systematic conditioning and restraint lessons: pick up foot, hold in both flexed & extended positions for several minutes while cleaning, grooming, rubbing leg, coronary band, bulbs etc.
Halter Pulling Rearing or setting back when tied, often until something breaks or horse falls and/or hangs by halter. Rushed, poor halter training, using weak equipment or unsafe facilities so horse gets free by breaking something.
Often horse was tied by bridle reins and broke free.
Can be curable but very dangerous and incurable in some chronic cases which require professional.
Might use stiff bristled broom on the rump or wither rope on advice of professional.
Head Shy Moves head away during grooming, bridling, clipping, vet work. Initially rough handling or insufficient conditioning, painful ears or mouth problems. Curable. First eliminate medical reasons such as ear, tongue, lip or dental problems.
Start from square one with handling; after horse allows touching, then teach him to put head down.
Jigging Short, stilted walk/jog with hollow back and high head. Poor training attempt at collection, horse not trained to aids, too strong bridle aids, sore back. Curable. Check tack fit, use aids properly including use of pressure/release (half halt) to bring horse to walk or use strong driving aids to push horse into active trot.
Kicking Lashing back at a person with one or both hind legs, also “cow kicking” which is lashing out to the side. Initially reflex to touching legs, then fear (defense) of rough handling or to get rid of a threat or unwanted nuisance. Might be curable but serious cases are very dangerous and require professional to use remedial restraint methods.
Unlikely to ever completely cure.
Rearing Standing on hind legs when led or ridden, sometimes falling over backwards. Fear, rough handling, doesn’t think he must go forward or is afraid to go forward into contact with bit; associated with balking; a response to collected work. Can be curable but is a very dangerous habit that might be impossible to cure even by professional.
Check to be sure no mouth or back problems.
Review going forward in-hand with a whip and review longeing.
Running Away;
Bolting
Galloping out of control. Fear, panic, (flight response), lack of training to the aids, overfeeding, under exercise, pain from poor fitting tack. Might be curable but very dangerous as when horse panics, can run into traffic, over cliff, through fence, etc.; remedy is to pull (with pressure and release) the horse into a large circle, gradually decreasing the size.
Shying Spooking at real or imagined sights, sounds, smells, or occurrences. Fear (of object or of trainer’s reaction to horse’s behavior), poor vision, head being forcibly held so horse can’t see, playful habit. Generally curable.
Put horse on aids and guide and control his movement with driving and restraining aids
Striking Taking a swipe at a person with a front leg. Reaction to clipping, first use of chain or twitch, restraint of head, dental work. Curable but very dangerous especially if coupled with rearing as person’s head could be struck.
Review head handling (mouth, nostrils, ears); head down lesson; and thorough body handling and sacking out.
Stumbling Losing balance or catching the toe on the ground and missing a beat or falling. Weakness, lack of coordination, lack of condition, young, lazy, long toe/low heel, delayed breakover of hooves, horse ridden on forehand, poor footing. Curable.
Have hoof balance assessed, check breakover, ride horse with more weight on the hindquarters (collect), conditioning horse properly.
Tail Wringing Switching and/or rotating tail in an irritated or angry fashion. Sore back from poor fitting tack, poorly balanced rider, injury, rushed training. May not be curable once established.
Proper saddle fit, rider lessons, massage and other medical therapy, proper warm-up & progressive, achievable training demands.

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When Good Horses Do Bad Things

©  2010 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information

Most horses are good. However, any horse can become a bad actor with improper care or handling. Certain horses have a predisposition to neurotic breakdown when faced with domestication pressures. This psychological frailty may be genetically inherited, formed from early experiences with the dam or training, or may develop later in life due to disease or trauma. Horses with neurotic tendencies often form vices.

Vices are undesirable habits that horses exhibit in the stable environment and are generally caused by confinement, over feeding, and stress. Examples are cribbing, stall kicking, and weaving.

Bad habits, such as rearing, halter pulling, or tail wringing are undesirable behaviors in response to human handling and are generally caused by rushed or improper training, uncertainty, insecurity, or resentment. A resentful horse is uncooperative and resistant. His resistance can be based on confusion, fear, disrespect, fatigue, and occasionally high spirits.

How  to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillOften a horse’s action is interpreted by humans as misbehavior but is perfectly legitimate horse conduct. Of course, what is acceptable behavior between two horses is not between a horse and a human. Here’s where practical horse psychology, behavior modification, training, attitude adjustment, conditioning, whatever you want to call it, is essential.

Most vices and bad habits are preventable, that is, with forethought and proper management and training, most of them can be avoided. Prevention is the desirable route because once certain habits are established, they can be extremely difficult to change. Some habits are manageable, that is, certain techniques and equipment can be used to diminish the negative effects of the habit, but the underlying habit is still there. If the equipment is not used, the habit resurfaces. A few habits are curable. With carefully planned, diligent efforts, some habits can be permanently changed. Some vices and bad habits are incurable.

Vices and bad habits are best approached in a step-by-step manner:

1. Understand horse behavior and needs
2. Identify and describe the vice or bad habit
3. Determine the cause(s)
4. Make management changes (facilities, exercise, nutrition, conditioning, grooming)
5. Implement appropriate training practices
6. Consider remedial training practices
7. Consider medical and surgical solutions.

UNDERSTANDING HORSE BEHAVIOR AND NEEDS A horse’s natural behavior must be altered somewhat so that the horse can adapt to domestication. Basing these modifications on natural behaviors results in minimal stress and long-lasting results.

Whether or not there is action, there is always behavior. A sullen horse, rigid and unyielding, is “behaving” just as is the wildly bucking one. Behavior that is repeated may become habit (even though it was not a human-designed lesson). Horses are constantly learning as a result of their casual handling and their everyday environment as well as from formal training sessions.

The horse is a gregarious nomad with keen senses and instincts and highly developed reflexes. These characteristics are responsible for sending a reining horse to the winners circle as well as sending a panic-stricken horse through a wire fence. Gregarious animals are sociable herd animals. Given the choice, horses are rarely seen alone, preferring to be in close proximity to other horses; there is safety and comfort in numbers.

Horses perform daily routines in response to various needs: eating, drinking, rolling, playing, participating in mutual grooming. The desire to perform these rituals is not diminished, and in fact is probably intensified, for the horse in confinement. Humans might think a horse Cherry Hill's Horsekeeping Almanacprefers to be clean, clipped and blanketed but most horses will opt for a good roll in the mud. The old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is based on firmly implanted habits which are governed by a biological-clock. Many behaviors are socially oriented (and contagious): eating, pawing and rolling, running and bucking, wood chewing, cribbing.

Just because horses want to be with other horses doesn’t mean all horses get along. Battles are fought to determine the pecking order or dominance hierarchy. This establishment of social rank usually makes future aggression unnecessary. Humans occupy a rung on the ladder of power and are tested by horses to see where they stand. A horse handler must convince a horse that the human is on top. Sometimes horses try to interact with humans as if they were horses. While a young horse is being groomed, he often wants to reciprocate as he would to his mutual grooming buddy in the pasture. Even though such a gesture is meant to be friendly, not aggressive, intentions don’t count. The act of nibbling must be discouraged with a clap on the horses neck or shoulder along with a firm “No”. Then get the horse busy doing something else.

Horse  For Sale by Cherry HillIf a horse has not been sufficiently socialized away from other horses and with humans, the horse will be insecure and often will desperately attempt to retain communication with or proximity to herd-mates or the barn. The chronic case is called herd bound or barn sour because the insecure horse links comfort, companionship, and food with the barn. What may originate in a young horse as a temporary insecurity may evolve into a long-standing and dangerous habit. In order to ensure that such a bad habit does not get started, handle horses separately from a very early age.

Look for upcoming posts on specific vices and bad habits.

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Improving Attitude and Confidence

Whether you’re returning to riding after time off or first learning to ride, get in shape before you get in the saddle. This will minimize injury and maximize enjoyment. When you evaluated your rider readiness in last month’s newsletter, perhaps you found a few areas that could use improvement. Here you’ll find exercises and tips specifically tailored for riders to help with those trouble spots.

STAGES OF RIDER DEVELOPMENT

1 – Evaluate, then make a plan.
2 – Focus on attitude, confidence and enough muscular strength to ride for about one hour.
3 – Work on flexibility to attain a correct riding position and use the aids effectively.
4 – Increase your endurance for longer or more demanding riding.
5 – Improve your timing for advanced riding skills.


ATTITUDE

A good attitude is a combination of motivation, optimism, diligence, patience, and honesty. If you think you need an “attitude adjustment”, start by finding or making adequate time to devote to riding. If you approach riding in a hurry, it’s not only harder to have a good attitude but it’s unsafe and often counter-productive.

Associate with happy, positive, successful people, especially during your horse time. You want to avoid folks with unhealthy egos, those that constantly gossip or bellyache, or those involved in illegal or inhumane activities. Learn about visualization, mental imaging, and goal setting and how they can be used to improve your riding.


CONFIDENCE

Confidence comes from knowledge, training, and experience. It’s no secret that confident body language convinces a horse that you are in charge.Two keys to confidence are:

1. Ride a good horse and

2. Work with a good instructor.

Even before you get to actual riding, spend plenty of time with your horse: grooming, tacking and leading so you become accustomed to each other.

Your Mentor, the Horse

So that you can concentrate on your riding, you need the help of a well-trained, patient, experienced horse. Most good “rehab” or school horses are 8-20 years old geldings but some older mares also exhibit great care and patience. Use a horse with an exemplary temperament, one that is not only patient but willing, cooperative, and alert, yet calm. You want a horse that is physically responsive to the aids and balanced and rhythmic in his gaits. A sensitive, thin-skinned, hot-blooded horse, even though well-trained, might react to accidental bumps of the leg or weight shifts as cues. You are usually better off choosing a duller, more cold-blooded horse that will tolerate the mistakes a rider makes when learning balance and rhythm. Such a horse tends to go on steadily despite awkward rider movements.

Choosing an Instructor

There is no substitute for a good instructor and a poor instructor is worse than none at all. So that you learn correctly and you maintain a good opinion of yourself, your horse, and your work, choose your instructor carefully. An excellent trainer may be good with horses but ill suited to working with people.

Look for an instructor with a keen eye and the ability to give you accurate feedback. You might think of your instructor as an experienced, talking mirror. The best instructor is also an excellent rider, trainer, and observer; someone who knows when things are going well and tells you; someone who sees when things are headed in the wrong direction and can tell you in clear terms how to fix it.

Choose an instructor that is appropriate for your goals and capabilities. Some teachers are excellent with beginning riders but do not have the proficiency to take a rider further. Others do not have the patience to work with any but very advanced riders and horses. An instructor with a famous name may not have the time or interest required to work regularly with a re-entry or novice rider. Look for an instructor nearby so you can take frequent lessons.

Give your instructor’s methods a chance to work. If you are convinced mentally that they will not work, they will not work. Be sure you can hear and understand exactly what your instructor is telling you. Misunderstandings can undermine your self confidence and your trust in your trainer.

Confidence Builder – the Mounting Block

One of the most awkward times in learning to ride is mounting and dismounting. You could teach your horse to sit down for you to mount! But a more practical solution is to use a mounting block. Especially if you are short, stiff, or coming back from an injury, a mounting block puts your foot closer to the stirrup and decreases the distance you have to lift your body weight. Whether you use a milk crate, a bucket or an official mounting block, you will find mounting less stressful to your knees and back. In addition, there will be less scrambling and saddle twisting, which your horse will appreciate. You can mount facing the rear or the front of your horse, whichever works best with your physical limitations. Use a quiet, obedient horse because if he steps sideways just as you are getting on, you could find yourself in a wrenching version of the “splits”!

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This time of year, many people get back to riding after not being able to due to weather or other commitments. A while back, I was asked to write a magazine series for people returning to riding after time off, illness, an accident, pregnancy or other reason. Following is that series. I hope you might find some information that will help you, a student, or a friend.

©  2010 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information

Part One – Attitude and Confidence

Have you been riding your computer or your truck more than your horse? Has an injury or surgery prevented you from riding? Maybe you’ve had a brutal winter or scorching summer and six months zipped past without a ride. If it’s time for you to get back in the saddle, with a little preparation you can make a smooth re-entry to riding.

After riding most of my life and teaching and judging many riders, I’ve seen that certain attributes can help or hinder a rider. Whether you are getting back to riding or taking it up for the first time, you should evaluate your attitude, confidence, relaxation, balance, flexibility, coordination, durability, strength, and fitness. Next month’s newsletter will contain tips on how to improve areas that need work.

ATTITUDE

A good attitude is made of motivation, optimism, diligence, patience, and honesty.

TEST: Answer Yes or No to these five questions:

1. You get up an hour earlier every morning so you have extra time to ride.
2. You see something ahead that might spook your horse. You alter your course to avoid the confrontation.
3. Your horse moves 3 small steps when you are mounting. You “let it go”.
4. You want to smooth out your horse’s lope but after several weeks you don’t see a change. You start looking for another horse.
5. When your instructor/trainer says, “Work with your horse every day to improve your riding”, you say, “I do!”

Yes to #1 shows motivation.
No to #2 shows a positive attitude that you can overcome your horse’s fears.
No to #3 shows diligence to work on small things to make the whole better.
No to #4 means you don’t give up quickly; training takes time.
Yes to #5 either means you are a rare person that can work with your horse every day OR your definition of “work” includes grooming, petting and feeding treats OR you just say “I do” to your instructor to keep from getting a lecture. To improve, you first must make an honest evaluation.

CONFIDENCE

Confidence comes from knowledge, training, and experience.

TEST: Answer Yes or No to these questions:

1. Have you had your horse handling and riding skills evaluated by a professional instructor?
2. Do you take regular lessons?
3. Do you know safe practices for handling and riding horses?
4. Do you work with a well-trained, experienced horse that can “show you the ropes”?
5. Do you know how to stop a runaway horse?

If you answered YES to these five questions, you have set yourself up to be confident.

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