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  • Writer's pictureHolly Heartz

Behaviour Problems? Start with the Basics!

Addressing a horse’s problem behavior may seem daunting. Where do you start?  Before trying to eradicate the problem behavior with various techniques or programs, start by evaluating the horse’s friends, forage, and freedom; the so called 3Fs.  These are the horse’s basic needs and they haven’t changed for thousands of years.  Most owners generally provide these needs; however, modern management practices can increase the horse’s frustration when they are not in line with their needs.


Friends

Horses are highly social animals and need to be part of a herd for interaction and protection.  Being isolated and not able to have access to friends creates an anxious and stressed horse.  If the horse is required to be stalled or in a paddock alone, it is at least desirable for them to be able to physically see another horse.  Better yet, configuring stalls by lowing partitions and doors or placing the horse in a paddock adjacent to other horses can prompt a behaviour improvement.   



Forage

Feeding portions of forage one to three times a day is a common practice. But providing the horse with meals does not address their need to constantly eat for 16 or more hours a day.  Eating is one of many activities horses do together, i.e. with friends.  Changing the diet so that they are

chewing most of the day can remedy many behaviour issues. 


The process of chewing initiates salivation, necessary for buffering the pH of the stomach, and the forage provides a mat or protective surface in the upper non-glandular part of the stomach.  During exercise, gastric juices splash up into the upper stomach. If this area is not protected, the juices can cause irritation and possibly lead to gastric ulcers.  So, there can be a physical reason for the problem behavior.


Recent recommendations emphasize that horses should not be without forage for more than four consecutive hours.   Moreover, it takes about 6 hours for food to move through the digestive track. No wonder a horse can display problem behaviours if they haven’t eaten for a while. I get cranky if I don’t eat.  Imagine how much worse this situation is for horses.


Problems can also occur between horses around the feeding location.  One or more horses can be bullied away from the food source.  This tends to occur when resources such as food are limited.  By providing one more feed location than the number of horses and providing a constant, or near constant, supply of food, some problem behaviours may be eradicated.

Freedom

In their natural environment, horses will travel many miles a day and often in conjunction with browsing on grasses.  The ability to move is important for the horse’s well-being.  When restricted, as when stalled, the horse is unable to express their normal behaviours, such as rolling and interacting with friends.  If a horse is denied the choice to be outside of their stall, then behaviour problems may arise out of frustration.  If in a stall for long periods, you may witness a display of all out running or kicking when let outside.  Lack of movement can impact health, leading to obesity, metabolic syndrome, hoof problems, and colic, among other things.



If your horse is boarded, it may be difficult to fully address all their basic needs, but you may be able to address them in part.  For example, you may be able to have the barn manager agree to a few extra hours outside before the horse is brought into their stall.


If you see behavioural issues with your horse, and before hiring a trainer, behaviourist, or veterinarian, see if your horse’s basic needs are being met.  Addressing your horse’s friends, forage, and freedom (movement), may help in resolving some behaviour issues you are observing. 


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