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Top 5 Stereotypie Behaviors of Domesticated Horses

As an osteopathic practitioner, stereotypie behaviours are taken very seriously because they illuminate root causes to physical manifestations and are a primary welfare concern.

In the world of equine behavior, there lies a spectrum of actions that reveal more than meets the eye. Among these are stereotypie behaviors, often misunderstood or overlooked. Unlike wild horse populations, domesticated horses are susceptible to certain behaviors that are not natural and are consistently linked to stress and welfare concerns.

This blog delves into the top 5 stereotypie behaviors seen in domesticated horses, their physical implications, solutions for intervention, and the impacts of long-term stress on the equine nervous system.

What are Stereotypie Behaviors?

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive, invariant behaviors that serve no apparent function. They are often a response to stress, frustration, or environmental limitations.

In domesticated horses, these behaviors manifest due to various factors, including confinement, social isolation, or inadequate management practices.

1. Cribbing (or Windsucking)

Cribbing involves a horse grasping a solid object with its teeth, arching its neck, and swallowing air. This behavior is often accompanied by a characteristic grunting sound. Studies have linked cribbing to gastrointestinal dysfunction such as pain and inflammation in the absence of free choice forage (McGreevy & Nicol, 1998).

Physical Consequence: The act of cribbing or windsucking in horses can have significant implications for their airways and musculature. Studies have shown that prolonged cribbing behavior can lead to increased airway inflammation and respiratory issues (Wickens, 2017). Furthermore, the repetitive motion involved in cribbing can result in tension or spasms in the ventral neck muscles, particularly the sternothyroideus and sternohyoideus muscles. This muscle tension can disrupt healthy biomechanics, affecting the horse's ability to flex and extend its neck properly, and may contribute to issues such as stiffness or resistance under saddle.

Solution: Provide ample free flowing access to high-quality forage. Provide ample turnout time and encourage social interaction with other horses. Implementing environmental enrichment, such as feed puzzles or slow feeders, can also reduce cribbing behavior.

2. Weaving

Weaving is characterized by rhythmic swaying of the head and neck from side to side while standing in one place. This behavior typically indicates anxiety or boredom, stemming from social isolation or inadequate mental stimulation (McAfee et. al., 2002).

Physical Consequence: The weaving behavior observed in horses can exert notable effects on their musculoskeletal system and overall biomechanics. Research suggests that horses exhibiting weaving behavior can experience increased muscle fatigue and tension, (Hausberger et al., 2009), particularly in the neck and shoulder regions. This repetitive swaying motion can lead to muscular imbalances and asymmetries, impacting the horse's ability to maintain proper posture and perform movements effectively. Additionally, the constant weight shifting and lateral movement associated with weaving can contribute to strain on the horse's joints, potentially leading to discomfort or reduced mobility.

Solution: Increase socialization opportunities by turning out the horse with compatible companions. Enhance environmental enrichment with toys, mirrors, or rotating pasture access to stimulate mental engagement. Establishing a consistent daily routine can also provide a sense of security and reduce anxiety.

3. Stall Walking (or Box Walking)

Stall walking involves constant pacing or circling within a confined space, such as a stall or pen. This behavior is a clear indication of frustration, boredom, or confinement-related stress (Broom & Fraser, 2015).

Physical Consequence: The repetitive pacing or stall walking behavior commonly observed in horses can have detrimental effects on their musculoskeletal health and overall well-being. This continuous movement within a confined space can result in overuse injuries, particularly in the limbs and joints, as well as muscular imbalances. Furthermore, the lack of varied movement and inadequate physical activity associated with stall walking can contribute to decreased joint flexibility and muscle strength, predisposing horses to musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis.

Solution: Maximize turnout time to allow the horse to move freely. Incorporate regular exercise to keep the horse mentally and physically stimulated. Installing stall toys or providing access to a run-in shed can also offer diversion and alleviate boredom.

4. Pawing

Pawing entails repetitively striking the ground with a front hoof, often in anticipation of feeding or when confined. While occasional pawing is natural behavior, excessive or prolonged pawing can signal frustration, impatience, or discomfort (Broom, 1993).

Physical Consequence: The repetitive pawing behavior exhibited by horses can have notable implications for their musculoskeletal health and overall welfare. Studies suggest that excessive pawing, particularly in anticipation of feeding or when confined, may be indicative of stress, discomfort, or frustration (Nicol et al., 2002). This repetitive motion can lead to muscle fatigue and tension, particularly in the forelimbs and shoulders, as well as increased strain on the hooves and joints all of which predisposes the horse to soft tissue injury (Nicol et al., 2002).

Solution: Implement a consistent feeding schedule to reduce anticipation-related stress. Provide free flowing access to high-fibre forage, and environmental enrichment such as socialization (turnout with friends). Address any underlying physical discomfort or dietary issues.

5. Head Bobbing (or Headshaking)

Head bobbing involves rhythmic nodding or shaking of the head, sometimes accompanied by snorting or sneezing. This behavior is commonly associated with respiratory discomfort, allergies, or neurological issues (Hausberger, 2009, Torcivia, 2021).

Physical Consequence: The repetitive head shaking or head bobbing behavior observed in horses can have significant implications for their musculoskeletal health and overall well-being. Research suggests that head shaking may be associated with various factors, including respiratory discomfort, allergies, or neurological issues such as inflammation of the trigeminal nerve (White & Mayhew, 2005). This repetitive motion can lead to muscle tension and fatigue in the neck and poll region and chronic pain (White & Mayhew, 2005). Furthermore, persistent head shaking behavior may interfere with the horse's ability to concentrate or perform tasks effectively, impacting its quality of life and performance.

Solution: Consult with a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions contributing to head bobbing. If vet clearance recieved, an osteopathic manual therapy practitioner can assist with evaluating for nerve compressions or any other physical issues that are contributing to the behaviour. Implementing proper fly control measures and providing shade or shelter are mandatory to mitigage environmental triggers.

The Impacts of Long-Term Stress on the Nervous System

Long-term stress caused by any of the above stereotypies can have detrimental effects on the equine nervous system, particularly due to the sustained release of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone. Prolonged elevation of cortisol levels in the bloodstream can lead to systemic inflammation, suppression of the immune system, and disruption of normal physiological processes (Sapolsky, 1996). Chronic stress has been associated with increased susceptibility to various health conditions in horses, including gastrointestinal disorders, laminitis, and impaired reproductive function (Moberg, 2000).

From An Osteopathic (therapeutic) Perspective

As discussed, the repetitive nature of all of these behaviors can lead to the development of dysfunctional musculoskeletal patterns, resulting in muscular imbalances, joint stiffness, and reduced range of motion.

Consider these behaviours consisted with repetitive strain injuries, which is one of the top conditions treated in human therapeutic practice.

Additionally, when coupled with long-term stress, these behaviors can exact a toll on the horse's physiology, compromising immune function, digestion, and overall health.

As an equine therapist, dealing with stereotypic behaviors can be incredibly frustrating, especially when owners disregard scientific understanding of their root causes. No amount of bodywork can fully address the issue if the underlying stressor persists. It's essential to remove the perpetuating factor to effectively address the problem. Otherwise, we're just treating symptoms, and when it comes to welfare, that's not a game we're willing to play.

From a therapeutic standpoint, addressing stereotypic behaviors requires a holistic approach that encompasses behavioral (emotional), enivronmental, and physical rehabilitation. Without properly addressing the environmental causes, the emotional and physical issues will continue to present. In short the perpetuating factor must be removed.

Remember, we are the ones who domesticated the horse......

Horses are designed to live like this

Not like this......

So, it is no wonder that stereotypie behaviours have evolved in the domestic horse. This is why we must do everything in our power to reduce the stress response experienced by far too many domesticated horses.

In Conclusion

Stereotypic behaviors in domesticated horses are not normal and should never be dismissed as quirks or personality traits. They are indicative of underlying stressors and welfare concerns that necessitate intervention. By understanding the root causes and implementing targeted solutions, horse owners and professionals can improve the well-being and quality of life for their domesticated equines and seek to prevent musculoskeletal pain.


Broom, D. M., & Kennedy, M. J. (1993). Stereotypies in horses: their relevance to welfare and causation. Equine Veterinary Education, 5, 151-151.

Houpt, K. A. (2010). Equine stereotypic behaviors: Causation, occurrence, and prevention. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5(2), 93–94.

McGreevy, P. D., & Nicol, C. J. (1998). Physiological and behavioral consequences associated with short-term prevention of crib-biting in horses. Physiology & Behavior, 65(1), 15–23.

Broom, D. M., & Fraser, A. F. (2015). Domestic Animal Behaviour and Welfare (5th ed.). CABI.

Lynn M McAfee, Daniel S Mills, Jonathan J Cooper. The use of mirrors for the control of stereotypic weaving behaviour in the stabled horse. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 78, Issues 2–4, 2002, Pages 159-173, ISSN 0168-1591.

Sapolsky, R. M. (1996). Why stress is bad for your brain. Science, 273(5276), 749–750.

Moberg, G. P. (2000). Biological response to stress: Implications for animal welfare. In M. C. Appleby & B. O. Hughes (Eds.), Animal Welfare (pp. 1–21). CABI.

Wickens, C. L. (2017). Equine stereotypic behaviors: Understanding, prevention, and treatment. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice, 33(3), 437–452.

Hausberger, M., Gautier, E., & Biquand, V. (2009). Effect of previous experience with humans on working horse behavior during fieldwork and the consequences for stress responses. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 123(1), 41–51.

Hausberger M, Gautier E, Biquand V, Lunel C, Jégo P (2009) Could Work Be a Source of Behavioural Disorders? A Study in Horses. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7625.

Torcivia C, McDonnell S. Equine Discomfort Ethogram. Animals. 2021; 11(2):580.

Nicol, C. J., & Davidson, H. P. B. (2009). Understanding the behaviour of horses. In P. D. McGreevy & R. A. S. B. Cripps (Eds.), The Domestic Horse: The Origins, Development and Management of Its Behaviour (pp. 76–99). Cambridge University Press.

Burns, S. J., Mills, D. S., & Weiss, A. (2019). Pawing in horses: A review of its possible causes, functions, and welfare implications. Animals, 9(11), 982.

White, R. N., & Mayhew, I. G. (2005). Headshaking in horses: Possible aetiopathogenesis suggested by the results of diagnostic tests and several treatment regimes used in 20 cases. Equine Veterinary Journal, 27(3), 174–180.


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