Those stable vices are the reaction of a plains - roaming and social animal to living in a box. As all these nervous habits, from cribbing to box walking are often copied by other horses it is no wonder that they are called stable vices.
We are looking at repetitive behaviour which compensates for an unnatural lifestyle i.e. crib biting and wind-sucking could substitute a horse’s need to graze 16 hours or more daily, to always having digestive activity. (All stabled horses need hay ‘on tap’). Stable vices are the equivalent of human obsessive compulsive disorder in which the subject seeks peace (or stimulus) via specific activities. Sadly though, this peace/stimulus once gained is not retained.
In a stable a horse is unable to walk its 20 miles a day as nature intended so might compensate by box walking – a vice? ‘Weaving’ resembles the adrenaline raising fidgets of a hyperactive child, and is therefore an efficient way to fight boredom. Tongue-wiping is probably linked to loss of grazing and a craving for stimuli. Owners and carers worry about these atypical equine habits because some, like box walking and weaving can lead to weight- loss. Obviously the first step in reducing repetitive activities is to change the horses’ lifestyle, allow them to live outside in a herd and when inside give them plenty of hay, massage and other stimuli, and essential oils can help along the way.
Bear in mind that relaxing oils like Lavender may not be the answer if your horse has one of these stable vices. A horse desperately in need of some stimulus may respond better to Peppermint, Rosemary or Basil. Let your horse choose. Hold the open bottle of oil about 6” from your horse’s nose and watch its reaction. If it attempts to grab the bottle or curls its lip in flehmen or just sniffs thoughtfully- then that oil is the appropriate one. If it backs or turns away from the bottle, this is an obvious ‘no!’
Mix 5-6 drops in total of the chosen oils into a teaspoon of gel (no more than 3 oils though) and apply these to the muzzle or chest area once or twice daily, once if you have had a ‘quite keen’, twice if it was ‘very keen’. Check the reaction every day and continue the applications until either s/he turns from them or the problem has been solved. Just as horses will investigate and select whichever herbs they need in the field so too will they select the aroma necessary to balance their emotions and their physical state.
Instead of calling these aberrant activities stable vices we should consider them clever coping strategies. (If we were imprisoned in a small room we would soon resort to rocking, hair twisting or thumb sucking) Kindness, an understanding of their basic need (ready grazing/ plentiful hay, clean water, freedom and company of their own kind) these make for happy horses. We can compensate for some unnatural conditions (stabling and rugging) with quality massage sessions and skilled application of essential oils, then with all these procedures stable vices will be less common.
See ‘Aromatherapy for Owners’ a Home Study Course in 12 Lessons £190.
The term 'stable vices ' was recategorised as Stereotypical Behaviours (STBs) in the 1990s but still dismissed as negative and having 'no apparent function'. However recent research has confirmed my view that STBs are essential coping mechanisms for horses living in an unnatural environment ;these behaviours are rewarded by the brain secreting the feel good hormone ,dopamine . Even more fascinating is the fact that the region affected lies close to the olfactory bulbs (which detect aroma).
See 'Coping Mechanisms ' by Linda Greening , Senior Lecturer ,UWE Hartbury in the May/June issue of Equine Health magazine.