by Casie Bazay

Explained: Stereotypic Behaviors in Horses

Explained: Stereotypic Behaviors in Horses

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive, abnormal behaviors that can develop in horses, usually in those that are kept confined for much of the day. In fact, researchers believe that anywhere between 10-40% of stabled horses will develop a stereotypic behavior of some kind.

To further explain, stereotypic behaviors can be defined as “stylized, repetitive, and apparently functionless motor responses or sequences”. Researchers believe that horses may develop these behaviors as a way of coping with stress stemming from unnatural feeding or management routines. 

Horses have an innate need to move, socialize, and graze throughout the day. By restricting these natural behaviors, we may be inviting unnatural behaviors to take their place. However, there may also be a genetic predisposition related to changes in the central nervous system that increases a horse’s risk for developing stereotypic behavior (1).

Stereotypic behaviors are generally divided into two main categories: 

  1. Locomotor; related to movement
  2. Oral; related to the mouth

A few interesting facts about stereotypic behavior in horses:

  • Horses may only display a stereotypic behavior at certain times, such as at feeding time, or they may show it sporadically or frequently without an apparent stimulus. 
  • They may only spend a small amount of time participating in the behavior or they may display it for long periods of time throughout the day. 
  • Horses can also routinely display more than one of these behaviors. 

Studies show that horses that display stereotypic behaviors have higher levels of cortisol (stress hormone) than normal. These horses also have higher levels of endorphins (feel-good hormone) when performing stereotypic behavior (2). This supports the theory that horses develop these behaviors as a way to cope with stress.

Horses with stereotypic behavior may be otherwise healthy and show no other signs of problems or illness. On the other hand, they may have related issues such as weight loss, poor performance, ulcers, or poor appetite. 

The following are some of the most common stereotypical behaviors in horses.

Wood Chewing

Wood chewing is exactly what it sounds like—when a horse bites off pieces of wood and ingests them. A horse may chew on wood walls or doors in stalls or they may chew on wood fences in paddocks or pastures. 

This behavior is of concern because it may lead to cribbing. It is typically associated with a low forage or high-starch diet, but it may also occur out of boredom (1,2).

Interestingly enough, wood chewing has also been seen in feral horse herds, so it may be a normal behavior in some cases, especially if the horse only does it occasionally outside of a stall (2).


Perhaps one of the most “nails on a chalkboard” habits, cribbing is where a horse will grasp a horizontal surface such as a stall door or bucket with its incisor teeth, flex its neck, and suck in air, making a characteristic noise. 

Wood chewing may be mistaken for cribbing, but the two behaviors are different. However, as noted above, wood chewing may turn into cribbing for some horses. Both cribbing and wood chewing are often the result of a lack of long-stem forage in the diet. 

Cribbing can begin as early as weaning time and may increase risk of colic and ulcers (1).

Once a horse has developed cribbing behavior, it can be difficult to stop. Though confinement or lack of forage seems to play a very important role in the development of this behavior, some horses on pasture or provided with plenty of forage may continue to engage in this behavior. 


Weaving involves moving the head from side to side while alternating weight between the forelegs in a repetitive manner. This is usually seen as the horse stands with its head over the stall door. Weaving most commonly occurs before feeding and may be a form of anticipation of an exciting or stressful event combined with frustration of being confined (1).

Weaving is also more common in horses kept in small paddocks where there is limited or no room to run.

Stall Walking

Stall walking is where a horse will walk in circles around their stall, often for hours at a time. If kept in a larger area, the horse may also circle in one corner. 

Weaving and stall walking are considered to be related because horses that perform one of these behaviors may also perform an oral stereotypic behavior (2).

Managing Stereotypic Behaviors in Horses

Stereotypic behaviors can be difficult to break once they’ve developed. However, they can be prevented by managing your horse in a more natural way. Ample turnout with other horses, plenty of long-stem forage, and regular exercise are all important in preventing or curbing stereotypic behavior. 

Increased fiber intake with long-stem forage is one of the most important ways to help to redirect oral stereotypies and may help with locomotor stereotypies as well. For horses in stalls, this can be done through the use of a slow feeder and making sure that the horse always has forage available. 

The following are additional tips for managing horses that show any of the above stereotypic behaviors: 

  • Determine if there are underlying issues such as gastric ulcers and treat, if present.
  • Reduce concentrates and especially sweet feed intake.
  • Avoid too-early weaning of foals.
  • Use straw bedding for horses that must be stalled (which provides opportunity to ingest more fiber).
  • Ensure that stalled horses can see other horses at all times. 
  • If providing visual access to other horses isn’t possible, installing a mirror inside the stall may be helpful, especially for horses that weave or stall walk.
  • Increase turnout time and exercise.
  • Keep horses on pasture instead of stall if possible.

Keep in mind that the first step in changing or reducing stereotypic behavior should be changing and enriching the horse’s environment in a way that is better suited to the species. This should always be done first before trying to use cribbing collars, anti-weaving grills, or other devices/products to deter the unwanted behavior, as many of these may only frustrate the horse more. Don’t hesitate to consult with your veterinarian about the behavior as well. 

You can improve your horse’s overall health and behavior through the gut-brain axis, with FullBucket Equine Probiotic Pellets. These veterinarian-formulated supplements also help reduce the negative impacts of stress, which is often high in horses with stereotypic behaviors. We recommend this one for daily maintenance and use in high stress horses. 

Read More: 

1) Undesired Behavior in Horses

2) Stereotypic Behavior in Horses

Photo by Olia Gozha: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photography-of-brown-animal-nose-16603/

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