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Winter behavior

From: Elena

Hi Jessica,

I love your column. Thankyou for your dedication. I need some advice. Bubba is a 9 year old QH G. I have had him for one year. He is awesome with me or other adults, but quirky with other horses. He prefers to be by himself. He doesn't want other horses paddocked with or next to him; stalled next to him; standing next to him, etc. There is no horse tht he likes or prefers, yet he is a gentleman with adults and children.

Last winter he was at another farm. My alternatives being limited, the place was very small, horses crammed into the barn and paddocks; open stalls by which other horses could stick their heads in his stall -- to make a long story short, he almost took the place down by kicking out doors, walls, beams, you name it.

In February I moved him to a place where he is paddocked individually; has a very large stall; the stalls are metal barred around the front so no one else can bother him; high wood walls on either side so he really can'd directly see anyone next to him. From February through the summer, the stalls on both sides of him were empty. He has the best of everything there, including caretakers that are conscientous, observant and know their stuff. An additional boarder arrived mid summer and thus, there was one horse on his left side. No problem. Toward the end of the summer, this new horse taught all the others - Bub included - how to chew fences (crib - so sucking at this point) I'm NOT thrilled, but I have no control over it. It was a passing phase for everyone else except for Bub. He really likes it -- inter the Weaver Miracle Collar during the day.

December must be the magical month because he increased his cribbing to include his stall walls AND he has begun to kick in his stall. This place is constructed well, but he certainly is making dents. Now another boarder has come in and he is kicking on both sides.

I cannot find the source of angst and I am feeling stupid. He gets an appropriate amount of food. He is meaty but not fat. I ride 4 times a week. Rides alternate from arena work, conditional by a local lake, trail riding where we cometimes do our flatwork on the trail and other times we just plod along. Sometimes alone and other times with someone. he likes being ridden. I groom almost every night and he seems to like that too. He is not crabby under saddle but he is increasingly crabby with something in his environment.

This is a small farm. When they are full there are only 5 horses. The people who run it are low key and safety conscientous. He cannot be stressed from a crazy environment such as a for example, large show barn.

I've been taking his temperature every night and before and after riding. It is completely normal. I have sent a urine sample in to the lab just to rule out a UTI..

The barn owners propose to put him on the end once one of their boarders departs on Friday. In worst case scenario, he'll only have a horse on one side. If they are short a boarder, he won't have one on either side at all. If this doesn't help, he'll wear his thick pm blanket and stalled in the arena shed outside. While I would love for him to have a stall, he may be happiest with this type of seclusion. This seems to be what he is communicating that he wants.

My husband and I have been discussing offering to pay for arena lighting so that I can ride 5 to 6 nights a week. They have electric where they need it so it shouldn't be that expensive. This is a nice place and the people are great and we know they do not have the exttra money for this project right now. It does seem that when I ride he is less agitated later on. I have also ordered from the company Equiternatives -- products from their EquiEssences Line called Mellow Out and Crib Ease. I don't know if you are familiar with this line. They are "flower essences specifically formulated to balance and harmonize your horse's emotional, psychologican and spiritual well being." I am not very aware of the needs of his spriitual well-being, but I'm willing to try anything -- especially something that is all natural.

The barn owners suggested that he may have winter hehavioral issues by which his kicking occurs moreso during this time of year. They are very patient with him and with me.

First and foremost, I do not want him to injur himself. Next I don't want him doing damage to someone's property. Am I missing something? Can you suggest any resources by which I can research equine behavioral tendencies?

What can be going on? I am stumped, frustrated and concerned for him. Anything would be appreciated

I apologize for anything that doesn't make sense. I am very tired. I don't know if I was supposed to list specific vendor names but I wanted you to know exactly what I was using.

Thank you,


Hi Elena! You may be dealing with a combination of factors here. I can't tell you exactly what is happening, but I can make some suggestions (assuming that you've ruled out that urinary tract infection, and that his bloodwork is normal).

"Winter" behaviour isn't different from summer behaviour, because horses are horses regardless of the season. With breeding-age, intact animals, spring and summer are the seasons that are generally associated with behaviour changes, but there is no increase in sex hormone production in winter -- on the contrary. It's not a normal breeding season.

There are observable changes in many horses' behaviour during winter, though, NOT because of the season, but because of the confinement that horses often experience in winter (again, not due to the season but to a conscious decision on the part of the humans involved). This isn't a seasonal issue though -- it's a horse management issue, and the same behavioural changes could be produced at other seasons if caretakers restrict a horse's activities.

Confinement isn't natural to horses. Confinement and overfeeding is even less natural, and yet this is what many horses experience in winter. Instead of turnout and free-choice hay, they are shut into stalls and fed higher levels of concentrates. In this situation, they have a great deal of energy and no way to dissipate it through play or work. The days are shorter, the nights are longer, humans aren't around as much, and there's less to do and less to see in the barn. But horses' sleeping patterns don't change -- they are still awake for roughly twenty hours of every twenty-four. During these twenty hours, confined horses can exhibit a variety of habits that annoy their owners: kicking, cribbing, weaving. These are called "stall vices" -- which simply means that they are the result of confinement. This isn't unique to horses, by the way! Weaving can be observed at any zoo in which animals are kept in too-small, too-boring areas. The constant pacing of elephants and big cats is a reaction to confinement. And small children confined to cribs and given no attention will similarly develop "vices of confinement" -- rhythmic head-banging, for instance.

The best solution for your horse would probably be full-time turnout with free-choice hay. If he is extremely territorial about his stall, and this is causing problems for the barn owners, perhaps he's better off without a stall in the barn. If he really objects to the presence of other horses, a field and shed of his own would seem to be the ideal solution. If the weather is horrible, put a rug on him for the worst, wettest, windiest days.

You'd be surprised to see how infrequently a horse will choose to spend time in a shed, given the choice between shed and pasture. ;-)

Flower essences probably won't do your horse any harm, but I think it's his physical being that is agitated, not his spiritual self. In my experience, flower essences such as Rescue Remedy are much more helpful to the rider than to the horse, and I suspect that the alcohol content may have something to do with the relaxing effect on the rider. ;-) Horses are intelligent and sensitive beings, but they aren't unduly complicated ones, and putting them into situations that are good for their bodies and minds will usually sort out their spiritual sides as well.

See what you can do about your horse's management. It sounds as though you have cooperative caretakers -- ask if they will help you with feed and exercise issues. A nine-year-old QH that is being ridden very lightly is a horse that probably needs NO grain at all, unless the hay is deficient in some way. Hay, water, and salt should take care of his actual needs, and enough hay will also serve to keep him warm and occupied.

I'm sure that free-choice hay could be arranged, even if your horse must stay in a stall and small paddock. If full-time turnout in a larger paddock or field is not possible, perhaps you could arrange with the barn manager to have your horse turned out in the riding arena (with hay, of course) at night. Even this much freedom can make an immense difference.

Good luck, and please let me know how the winter progresses for you!


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