What Are The Signs Of Compulsive Behaviours In Horses?

If you spend enough time around horses, sooner or later you’ll notice that some animals develop compulsive behaviours or ‘stereotypies’. These behaviours are not only distressing to see but they can cause physical harm to the animal and ultimately cause them to damage their stable and surrounding areas.

Stereotypies often develop when a horse is stressed, bored or lacks social interaction. Therefore, it is vital as a horse owner to learn how to identify compulsive horse behaviour as this will help you to treat the issue and ensure your horse is as happy as possible.

Types of compulsive behaviour

Compulsive equine behaviour can vary significantly with some horses simply developing a few annoying but nonthreatening habits and others developing stereotypies that can cause them to seriously damage themselves and their surroundings.

Oral Stereotypies

These are relatively common and affect approximately 16% of adult horses. One type of oral stereotypy is cribbing. This is a behaviour in which the horse places their upper teeth on a stationary object, arches their back and takes in a big breath of air before releasing it with a grunt. It is similar to wood chewing and can cause significant damage to the horse’s stall.

Locomotive Stereotypies

These involve compulsive movements like rocking, weaving, head bobbing and circling. Locomotive stereotypies associated with the head like bobbing, nodding and shaking are often caused by a lack of stimulation or a poorly fitted bit. They can also be the result of persistent flies and insects causing the horse irritation.


Self-mutilation is probably the most distressing type of stereotypy for horse owners to witness, especially when it begins to cause the horse significant harm. Self-biting is a common form and often triggered by flies or other irritants landing on the horse’s flanks. If you see that the horse continues to bite at one area over and over again even when no irritants are present it may be a sign that they have developed this type of compulsive behaviour.

How do stereotypies differ from other behaviours?

Unlike other types of equine behaviour, stereotypies are persistent and are a compulsion rather than a voluntary action. In many cases, once stereotypies develop they will remain a part of the horse’s behaviour even after the trigger has been removed. This is where the real danger becomes apparent.

How can you treat them?

There are lots of triggers for stereotypies, from insufficient grazing and frustration to a lack of fibre in the diet and even genetics. Finding the source of the problem isn’t always going to be easy.

Easy steps you can take include increasing the amount and the variety of forage available, exercising your horse regularly, along with ensuring it socialises with other animals as much as possible.

In some cases, stereotypies and compulsive behaviours can be caused by underlying medical conditions so it’s always a good idea to talk to your vet if you’re concerned about how your horse is acting.

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