Is Your Horse Happy in His Job?
A common cause of abnormal horse behavioral disorders is poor living conditions. But interesting results were yielded by a study to determine whether specific behaviors relate directly to the horse’s type of work.
The Horses Used
Being studied were 76 French Saddlebred geldings at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation in Saumur, varying in age from 5 to 16. Their living conditions were identical: no turnout or equine socialization, and one hour of work daily.
Behavioral disorders were observed in 65 of the horses. Researchers of the study state: ‘This very high rate did reflect unsuitable environmental conditions.’
The animals performed one of six different types of work and two main categories of behavior emerged, which clearly resulted from their jobs. The vaulting (voltige) horses were classed separately.
(Note: Information about the behavioral disorders observed and the horses’ work types is shown under Resources.)
Dressage & High School Horses (Category 1)
These horses had a higher tendency to exhibit 2 or more behavioral disorders, called stereotypies.
Over 88% of the dressage horses and 81% of the high school horses developed stereotypies, and were the only horses to crib and/or windsuck.
Two horses in this group were seen weaving, but many more were head tossing or nodding than in Category 2 (below).
Of all the disciplines, the dressage horses exhibited their abnormal behaviors for the longest periods of time.
The researchers suggest that one reason why headshaking and nodding were more prevalent among the dressage horses is because they are required to keep their necks flexed for most of their time under saddle, and work in ‘restrained gaits.’
Eventers, Jumpers and Advanced Riding School (Category 2)
Most common stereotypy in this group was repetitive licking and/or biting in the stalls of such structures as the walls, grids and feeders.
This was observed in 90% of the eventers, 87% of the jumpers and 71% of the advanced riding school horses.
They exhibited different stereotypies from the dressage horses possibly because they were encouraged to move ‘forward in a less ritualized posture.’
Their biting and licking might be negative reactions to the ‘unsuitable conditions (social separation..) they were housed in,’ or they were searching ‘for elements missing in their diet.’
Voltige (Vaulting) Horses
These horses ‘clearly showed more minor stereotypies than the other categories.’ Tongue play was exhibited by 4 horses in the small group of 7.
Constantly wearing side reins to keep ‘their necks bent and their heads down’ may have resulted in their tongues hanging out as ‘a resistance to their bits and ….. pressure on their mandibles.’
The vaulting horses spent ‘spent more time lying down in the box than the other categories.’ It was noted that their jobs required calmer natures. This attribute, combined with a limited amount of ‘interpersonal conflicts’ with humans, may have made them ‘more resistant to possible work stressors.’
The study concludes that ‘work may be a source of chronic abnormal behavior’ in horses. It is naturally exacerbated by restrictive living conditions. However, this research shows that the stressors of individual disciplines have a powerful impact on the kind of stereotypy horses are likely to develop.
Varying the work schedule, and allowing them to ‘be horses’ by giving them adequate turnout with equine companions, will reduce the likelihood of unhappy, abnormal behavior.
Martine Hausberger, Emmanuel Gautier, Véronique Biquand, Christophe Lunel, Patrick Jégo
For information about how the research was conducted see:
For explanation of individual abnormal behaviours, see the following definitions from:
“Weaving: obvious lateral swaying, movement of head, neck, forequarters and sometimes hindquarters.
“Cribbing and windsucking: when cribbing, the horse grasps a fixed object with its incisors, pulls backwards and draws air into its oesophagus. Windsucking is similar but no object is grasped.
“Head shaking and nodding: repetitive bobbing of head up and down or recurrent and sudden bouts of head tossing.
“Tongue play: the horse sticks out its tongue and twists it in the air.
“In addition to the “more classical” stereotypes we recorded repetitive licking/biting (walls, grids, feeder…) movements as additional abnormal repetitive behaviors.
For a definition of horses’ work used in the research, see: