Horse Vices


Horses are hard done by! In ages past they were left to roam freely over open countryside and do whatever took their fancy. Now they are expected to live in small confined stables, often alone, and graze small enclosed pastures. So it is no surprise that they look for other things to do and get up to mischief, sometimes with adverse consequences.

What is a vice?

A vice is a type of unusual or abnormal behaviour. It may be of a destructive nature, but then becomes habitual with adverse consequences for the horse’s personality. This behaviour can take different forms and occurs mostly in animals that are kept confined for extended periods of time.

Describe the types of vice seen

1 Psychological

  • Box walking:  As a result of boredom: This is a stereotypical behaviour, and your horse will traipse aimlessly around the box in circles. This results in damage to ligaments, tendons and joints along with exhaustion. It is almost impossible to stop. The best answer is to turn your horse out as much as possible. If stabling is inevitable, ensure that he/she has some type of distraction such as a horseball.
  • Crib biting: the horse will grab the edge of something, usually the stable door with his front incisor teeth and chew on it. This wears down the teeth prematurely and may interfere with grazing. Again it may be caused by boredom but is something that can be learned from another horse. This habit can be controlled by painting unpleasant tasting substances to the surface involved.
  • Tail rubbing: This is self explanatory. Parasite control is important; try using a tail bandage
  • Weaving: Another behaviour pattern from boredom or copied from another horse. The horse will behave like the archetypal police constable, shifting its weight from one forelimb to the other, and swaying the head from side to side. It can vary in severity from mild e.g. at feeding time to continual when left alone. This behaviour is very difficult to control. Try to give your horse a companion (not necessarily another horse!), a slow release feeding device or horseball and provide plenty of exercise.
  • Windsucking: May be seen along with crib biting. Again caused by boredom or copying other horses. After grasping an object with its teeth the horse arches his neck pulls back, grunts and sucks air into the tummy Control is as for crib biting, and ensure there is no other horse with this vice in the vicinity to teach yours bad habits. Ensure your horse has things to play with, plenty of exercise and doesn’t get bored. You can apply foul tasting liquids to any surface your horse uses to start windsucking
  • Wood chewing: May be caused by mineral deficiencies, parasites or teeth problems. The habit causes excessive wear on the front incisor teeth and may make grazing awkward. Cover wooden surfaces with metal or rubber strips or apply foul tasting liquids to exposed wooden surfaces.

2 Temperamental Vices

  • Biting: Mostly with stallions. More gentle horses may bite if they are hurt when grooming. It is also a self defence against other horses or disliked people. Control with a smart tap on a fleshy part and a loud “NO” when this is attempted: eventually the horse will respond just to the “NO” command.
  • Bolting: Can be dangerous for both rider and horse. Ensure that the saddle is fitting correctly and the bit is comfortable in the mouth. Check to see that there are no painful physical problems. It may occur suddenly after a repeat of a bad experience in the past. If there is a problem, avoid riding out in large open places, and be accompanied by a more sedate horse.
  • Kicking: Horses that are confined may learn to destroy walls and doors by repeatedly kicking. Padding may help to stop this. Some that have been mistreated may develop a kicking habit as a type of self preservation. Or frustrated horses waiting for their food at meal time. Such a horse can potentially be dangerous so stay well away from the rear end.
  • Rearing: Associated with overexcited horses and ponies and usually shown as short little jumps. Other fearful horses may rear up higher when trying to avoid something or suddenly startled. Check for any physical signs such as a sore mouth or painful back If you observe any other kind of abnormal quirks it is likely to be behaviour related and not a vice. Try to find out the triggers for it before it becomes ingrained and habitual.
  • Stress: Horses may become stressed and show abnormal behaviour patterns if they cannot graze. Feed high levels of roughage frequently to give him a full belly and reduce stress. Chaff mixed with hay is the best combination as that mirrors best the diet in the wild. Check out the stable design. It needs to be comfortable, well ventilated and not too dark. There should be fresh water available at all times. Try various types of bedding to see if he has a preference. Especially if there is no equine company leave a radio on.


To relieve boredom, hang a ball for him to play with and smear it with something pleasant such as molasses. As a last resort consider surgery for horses that crib bite or wind suck: this operation transects a muscle that controls throat movement when swallowing, but a relapse is possible afterwards.


This information is provided for information purposes to our registered clients. It is the individual opinion of veterinary surgeons within the practice. It should not be relied upon as an alternative to a clinical examination and diagnosis by a veterinary surgeon. If in any doubt please contact the practice for further advice.

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