These are all signs of stress–they are all things that people are known to do when they are under stress, and surprisingly enough horses are able to exhibit nervousness through their actions as well.
A large portion of horses display signs of obsessive compulsive disorders–about fifteen percent to give you an idea. Sometimes these behaviours are called stable vices; this simply means that the behaviours they exhibit have to do with their stable environment.
Chewing on their stable blankets, nodding their heads up and down, and even pawing the ground are signs of equine related OCD. These are not difficult behaviours to control, but others are; they are the product of lack of proper training and can be fixed with the help of proper training.
Have you ever seen a horse grab a piece of the wood in its stall and pull on it? Many times this behaviour is accompanied by groaning and grunting, huffing and puffing. This is called cribbing, and it is not called ‘cribbing’ when horses actually eat the wood in their stalls.
Cribbing is a compulsive behaviour of horses that can be quite expensive; stalls must be repaired and it can lead to intestinal problems with the horse. This can be a disqualification for many people who are looking to insure their horses because it is so bad for their health.
While it is not definitively known just what causes OCD in equines, there is some evidence that it can be inherited. It is unlikely that truly OCD behaviour is caused by poor training and handling, because even in large stables, there are usually only one or two horses that show OCD behaviours while the rest do not. There is also some evidence that improper diet and feeding can contribute to OCD behaviour.
What can you do to prevent equine OCD? Other than proper training, spending time with your horses and not confining them to a barn or stall is a great start. Also, feeding them crunchier food has also been known to help cribbing, as surprising as it sounds. These are closest to the lifestyles of wild horses and wild horses are never really seen cribbing or performing any other OCD-related behaviour. All they do all day is graze.
In contrast, horses who have been tamed spend a great deal of their day in a barn or horse stall, and only a portion of this time is spent finding and eating food. Empty stomachs lead to stress and stress leads to these pulling movements, which is why cribbing has become such a problem. This is not to say that cribbing does not occur outdoors, but it does not usually happen this way.
There are other ways to correct cribbing as well. For instance, special harnesses can be bought that do not allow the horse to crib; they restrict the movement of the muscles necessary to do so. Also, sometimes veterinarians may be able to alter the muscles of the horse to restrict it from cribbing, but this is not usually recommended.
There has been research on medications that can restrict cribbing. Certai medications reduce stress, which reduces the likelihood of cribbing. Injectable drugs may also help to reduce cribbing, but anti depressants seem to be the most effective medication for this problem.
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