What Is a Locomotor Stereotypy?
Some horses stand in their stalls and swing their heads rhythmically back and forth for long periods of time, seemingly oblivious to the goings-on in the stable. Others pace back and forth in front of their stall doors, while others continuously circle their stalls as if they’re on a pony walker at a fair. These horses have locomotor stereotypies. “Locomotor” means movement, and “stereotypy” refers to a repetitive—that is, a continuously repeated—sequence of behavior. Locomotor stereotypies involve repetitive movement.
It’s not unusual for horses who perform one type of locomotor stereotypy to develop others as well. A horse with multiple stereotypies might even perform one in one situation and another in a different situation.
Common Locomotor Stereotypies
Two of the most common locomotor stereotypies in horses are stallwalking and weaving.
“Stallwalking” describes the continuous movement of a horse within her stall. Horses who stallwalk may pace back and forth against one wall (usually the door side), or they may simply circle the stall continuously. Horses with an established stallwalking problem may also pace repetitively against a fence when turned out in a paddock or pasture.
Some horses swing their head from side to side in a rhythmic motion. This swinging is called “weaving.” Typically, the horse leans forward, facing a wall, lowers her head and swings it back and forth approximately two feet above the ground. Some horses sway their entire forehand or even their entire body, lifting a leg each time they shift their weight from side to side. As with stallwalking, weaving occurs most commonly in front of the stall door or at the front stall wall.
Although they’re not much fun for a horse’s guardian to watch, weaving and stallwalking usually don’t harm the horse. However, excessive weaving and walking can cause uneven wear on the horse’s hooves or the stall floor, and they may cause stress on the horse’s joints and muscles on one side of her body. Because weaving and walking involve continuous movement, these behaviors can also burn a lot of calories and contribute to weight loss. In addition, as with other stereotypies, a horse can get so involved in repetitive weaving or walking that she may not eat enough to keep her weight up.
What Causes Locomotor Stereotypies?
Stress and Frustration
Stereotypies often develop due to stress or frustration of some kind. Stress in horses occurs when they can’t act naturally. For example, a horse might become stressed or frustrated if she doesn’t get to interact with other horses on a regular basis or if she can’t graze. Waiting—expecting something that doesn’t happen instantaneously—is also stressful for horses. This is probably due to the fact that they aren’t predators and don’t have to hunt for their food. Instead, horses graze, which means that they eat almost continuously, whenever they feel like it. They’re not used to having to wait to eat. One study showed that watching another horse eat while being prevented from eating herself can cause a horse to engage in a locomotor stereotypy.
The Persistence of Locomotor Stereotypies
Stereotypies are persistent. Once a horse develops one, it often won’t go away, even if the stress or frustration that originally caused it is eliminated. For a more thorough discussion of the conditions that can contribute to the development of stereotypies in general, please see our article, Compulsive Behavior in Horses .
Could Something Else Be Causing My Horse’s Behavior?
As a social species that has adapted to continuous grazing conditions, horses haven’t evolved to be patient. When they expect things to happen, such as meals or turn-out with other horses, and these things are delayed, they can get very agitated. Some horses will kick at the stall door, others will whinny, and others will begin to pace frantically. Some may even defecate while pacing. If these signs of agitation occur only while a horse is very upset, they’re probably not stereotypic behaviors.
Recent studies have found that some headshaking in horses is induced by bright light. This disorder is probably similar to photic sneezing in people (sun sneezing), and it’s more common in the spring than during other times of the year. Light—and sometimes even sharp sounds—appear to overstimulate the nerve responsible for sensation in a horse’s face. When this happens, the horse experiences an uncomfortable stinging or prickling sensation in her nasal cavities, and the headshake is a reaction to the pain.
The photic headshake is a relatively abrupt and violent toss, whereas stereotypic head weaving is rhythmic. Unlike stereotypic head weaving, photic headshaking generally gets worse when a horse is being worked. Horses with photic headshaking can headshake while trotting or even cantering, and they’ll stop abruptly when they get back to the darkened barn. Covering their eyes will also stop the shaking. Photic headshaking is usually accompanied by snorting and attempts by the horse to scratch her head on anything handy, including her foreleg or even the ground.
An Injury or Medical Condition
It is not unusual for horses to make unusual movements when they’re in pain or because of neurological disorders. If your horse has no history of stereotypic behavior and suddenly begins to do things such as head bobbing, self-biting, foot stomping or other behaviors that may indicate distress, please have your veterinarian come out to your barn to rule out medical causes.
What Can I Do to Reduce Locomotor Stereotypies in My Horse?
Stereotypies are very difficult—if not impossible—to eliminate once they’ve begun. Because of this, prevention is the best approach. (Please see our article Compulsive Behavior in Horses  for more information on stereotypy prevention.) However, certain management changes have been found to reduce locomotor stereotypies. Most involve increasing social contact with other horses. If this isn’t possible, there’s some evidence that allowing a horse to have a barn buddy of a different species can help reduce problem behavior. Ponies make excellent companions for single horses, as do goats. The size of both ponies and goats reduces the potential that they’ll be stepped on by a horse.
Sometimes it’s impossible to provide a horse with a buddy. In these situations, giving the horse a mirror in her stall may help. Studies have shown that putting a 3-foot by 4 ½ -foot mirror in a horse’s stall can reduce locomotor stereotypies like weaving and head nodding. In fact, in one study, mirrors reduced weaving even more than the use of anti-weaving bars (bars that limit a horse’s ability to move about in her stall). For safety, any mirror that’s hung in a horse’s stall should be acrylic. (You can purchase special mirrors made for horses from online vendors, such as The Stable Mirror Company .) Mount the mirror approximately 4½ feet from the floor so your horse can see into it at a natural relaxed head height.
Event-Related Stress Reduction
Studies have shown that certain types of horses are more likely to develop locomotor stereotypies than others. The most susceptible are race horses and other competition horses, such as show jumpers and dressage horses. Although it hasn’t been determined whether this increased likelihood is due to breeding, to the stress of competition, to the way the horses’ days are managed, or to some combination of all three, it’s certain that reducing stress can reduce problems. For instance, some horses will engage in stereotypic behavior like pacing or pawing when their manes have been braided or their snood or show wraps have been placed on them the day before a show. To reduce undesired behavior under these specific circumstances, a horse’s guardian can make a habit of preparing the horse for a show two or three times a week when there’s no actual show. The guardian can braid some of the horse’s mane or wrap the horse as he or she would before a show, or wash the horse and put on the snood or other body wraps. The next day, instead of taking the horse to a show, the horse’s guardian can just remove the snood or body wraps. After a few weeks of repetition, the pre-show preparations won’t signal an impending show, and the horse will feel less stressed when they happen.
Because stereotypies most often develop in response to stress, a horse’s welfare must be kept in mind when considering treatment. Physical management devices, such as anti-weave bars, are stressful for horses. Studies have shown that stress hormones in horses with stereotypies are highest just before a horse performs a stereotypy and lowest right after the horse engages in the stereotypy for a period of time. This suggests that engaging in stereotypies reduces stress for the horse.
With this in mind, treatment should focus on making changes in a horse’s management—changes that reduce the horse’s frustration levels or change her diet—rather than the use of devices that simply keep her from engaging in stereotypic behavior. If your horse has developed one or more stereotypies, consider ways to increase foraging, decrease concentrated feeding and increase contact with other horses, and regularly take your horse out of her stall for extended periods.
For tips on environmental enrichment for horses, which can go a long way in improving welfare, please see our article, Enriching Your Horse’s Life .
General Management Strategies for Reducing Locomotor Stereotypies
The following is a list of general management strategies that may reduce locomotor stereotypies in your horse:
- Increase pasture turn-out with other horses. Pasture turn-out decreases locomotor stereotypies not only because a horse spends more time eating, but also because it increases her time in close contact with other horses.
- Increase the amount of forage to at least 15 pounds per horse per day.
- Use a variety of forage. In addition to your horse’s usual hay, you can feed commercial fiber cubes, whole carrots and other varieties of hay.
- Feed flake hay up to six times per day.
- Bed the stall with straw. Because horses usually won’t eat straw, it’s excellent bedding in which to scatter hay and other grasses, which will increase your horse’s foraging time. Additionally, studies have shown that horses prefer straw as bedding over some other types, such as paper and wood chips.
- Provide access to other horses. The best way to do this is to increase pasture turn-out time with other horses because then your horse can graze more, too. But simply increasing paddock turn-out time with barn buddies or increasing the number of turn-outs per day can also reduce stereotypies. If barn management or the horse’s worth prevents communal turnout, creative barn adjustments can help, such as installing bars in place of walls between stalls. Even just seeing other horses more can help, so leaving the stall door open and using a stall-guard is a simple strategy to try.