How to Deal With a Horse That Has 'Movement Vices'

‘Vices’ are abnormal behaviours. ‘Movement vices’ are any abnormal behaviors that involve movement, including box (or stall) walking, kicking and weaving.
Why does the horse do it? All horses have some basic needs/instincts. These include moving around freely and being able to interact fully with other horses. Wild horses can cover 20 miles (32 km) a day and almost always have herd mates nearby. If these needs to move and interact with each other are not met, the horse becomes frustrated and stressed. Studies have shown that the time spent in a stable (stall) is correlated with an increased risk of abnormal behavior. [1]


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    Investigate to find the cause because each horse is different. Generally vices related to movement (weaving, box walking, kicking) are caused by a lack of space. Watch the horse. Where does he/she perform the behaviour? In the field, in the stable (stall)? When does he/she perform it and what happens at, before, or after that time? Is it when other horses are taken away or brought in?
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    Once you have found the cause (or thought you have), try gradually giving the horse more pasture and/or herd time. A healthy herd consists of males and females of varying ages, and has at least 7 members. However, simply having two or three herd mates to interact with is infinitely better than none.
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    • Turn the horse out as much as possible with other horses. You can use pasture, a school (arena), a large barn or even a fenced yard if it’s safe.
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    • Give ad-lib forage in small-mesh hay nets and put it in more than one place to imitate foraging. The small mesh requires the horse work harder to get the hay out, which increases the amount of time they spend eating without increasing the amount of food, which is good for the gut and for horses that finish hay quickly and then get bored. (It also cuts down on hay waste and stall cleaning time because the horse doesn't have the opportunity to spread it around and step on it while eating). Give different types of forage for variation and hide or hang fruits and vegetables in the stable.
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    • If the horse must be stabled, make sure the horse has sight of other horses and preferably have a grill so the horse can touch noses with their neighbours. If you know the horses get on well you can stable them together in a suitable, safe barn.
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    If the horse continues his/her abnormal behaviour, it may have turned into a habit. If you think this has happened, try creating a more pleasant environment for the horse. Pay attention to the things he/she likes, and what he/she does not like. Add interesting things to their space if they must be kept separate for any length of time, such as brushes to rub against on the wall, interactive toys to play with, and/or classical music playing in the background.
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    • Try an edible distraction. Putting water, hay, a salt block or anything else the horse would like to eat at the place he normally performs the vice may or may not help.
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    • Avoid use of anti-weave grills. These can be fitted to stables to force the horse to stop weaving; however this creates an even smaller, more claustrophobic space for the horse, which will only add to their stress, so this is highly discouraged!
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    Watch the horse carefully. If the horse is not able to move freely or be with its herd, and the horse isn't permitted perform the vice, he/she will become even more stressed.
    • Try a very gradual approach to increasing outdoor activity and herd-time for about 6 weeks to give the horse time to adjust to the new situation.
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    Continue to gradually increase the outdoor activity and herd-time for another six weeks, if the abnormal behavior is still present. At some point, you may realize that the horse has other reasons to be stressed, which is why the behaviour has not gone away completely.
    • If a horse has been performing the abnormal behaviour for a long time, it may be because of trauma suffered at a young age (such as being weaned too early, or in an insensitive way). A horse that learned a behaviour early in life due to traumatic events may carry that behaviour until he/she learns that the behaviour is no longer necessary.
    • This is especially true with wall-kicking during feeding time, in which case you may need to try many different ways of feeding your horse to figure out the least stressful method. This could involve a floor pan instead of a bucket hung on the wall, or a different corner, or a nose bag instead of a bucket, or feeding within a wider window of time instead of exactly at the same time every day. Be creative and don't be afraid to try something if no one can give you a really good reason why you shouldn't.
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    Speak with the barn/stable staff and/or all of the horse's handlers (and riders, if any) about their reactions to the horse's vices. Do they pay more attention to the horse when he/she kicks, weaves or stall walks? Do they give the horse more hay if he/she kicks the wall? Do they yell, strike, throw water or objects or otherwise try to actively/physically discourage or stop the horse from the behaviour? Anything other than completely ignoring the behaviour when it happens may be reinforcing the behaviour.
    • If it turns out the people around the horse do try any of these tactics, ask them to change their responses. They should completely ignore the horse until the behaviour stops, and then as soon as it stops, they should put the horse out or let him/her have some quality herd-time. This may take many months of pretending to not hear the horse kicking or seeing them weave or stall-walk, but if everyone is consistent and the horse is receiving increasing outdoor and herd-time, the behaviours should subside. Be patient and diligent - horses are not machines, and sometimes it takes time for them to adjust to a healthier way of behaving.
    • In the meantime, protect walls and doors with wooden or rubber kick boards.
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    Get the horse's feet and legs checked regularly for abnormal wear and tear caused by the stereotype behaviour.
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    Be patient. Remember that as your horse becomes more happy and stress free, the abnormal behaviour will fade into an occasional annoyance, and may possibly disappear altogether.


  • If you can’t feed forage ad-lib because the horse is on a diet or is a good-doer (puts on weight easily), feed ad-lib oat straw. Oat straw is very low in nutrients. The horse will have to have other forage as well, but once that’s gone there will still be oat straw to eat.
  • Kicking is fairly common and not always called a vice, if the horse just kicks when about to be fed. If the horse kicks more frequently though, it can be treated as a vice as it is likely to be caused by frustration.
  • Some people say that horses can copy behaviours off one another. Others say that they don’t (with the possible exception of a foal copying his dam) and that many horses with a behaviour in the same yard (barn) is because they are all managed in the same way.
  • Horses that live out with other horses and have access to ad-lib (as much as they want) forage rarely show abnormal behaviours, so try to get as close to this as possible.
  • A horse with a vice who lives out with company and plenty to eat may continue the behaviour if he/she is being bullied by the others, missing a special friend, not used to being turned out, is being reinforced by unwitting bystanders, or may be uncomfortable physically.
  • Don't forget that sometimes vices can be a sign of physical discomfort, so be sure to ask your veterinarian to check for ulcers and/or signs of trauma that could help you solve the puzzle of your horse's behaviour.
  • Your horse could be doing it because you may forget to feed him or something. Horses like a routine.


  • Don’t expect the behaviour to change unless the horse's environment and social needs have been thoroughly met, as this will just make your horse more stressed.
  • Don’t try to force the horse to stop by further restricting the horse - this will backfire and could create a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Once a horse as developed a vice, he may fall back on it in any time of stress. If you sell/loan the horse it is important to tell the new owner/loanee if the horse has ever shown a vice, even if the horse doesn’t do it any more.

Sources and Citations

  1. WATERS, A. J., NICOL, C. J. and FRENCH, N. P. (2002), Factors influencing the development of stereotypic and redirected behaviours in young horses: findings of a four year prospective epidemiological study. Equine Veterinary Journal, 34: 572–579. doi: 10.2746/042516402776180241
  • University of Bristol, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, Langford.
  • The Veterinary record (Impact Factor: 1.63). 08/1995; 137(2):36-7. DOI: 10.1136/vr.137.2.36
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Categories: Horses