While a horse’s “weaving” behavior itself is not usually harmful, it can be worrisome for his owner. Weaving also may be a symptom of a larger problem that should be addressed with changes to your horse’s lifestyle. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about this weaving behavior in horses – what it is, what causes it, and what you can do to stop it.
What is Weaving?
Stall weaving in horses is an example of abnormal stereotypic behavior – a compulsive behavior that is repetitive, serves no purpose, and is only observed in domesticated horses (rather than their wild counterparts).
Definition of Horse Weaving
“Weaving is a rhythmic swaying in place that usually involves a lateral excursion of the head and neck and a concurrent shifting of weight between the front feet, such that the entire front end of the horse is usually involved, as well as sometimes the hindquarters.” (source)
Weaving is usually considered a stable vice, like cribbing, kicking, or stall walking. While it’s not usually harmful, you may want to take efforts to curb your horse’s weaving behavior and improve his mental health.
Why do horses weave?
As with other stable vices, there is no one singular reason that explains why some horses exhibit this behavior. However, if you can better pinpoint the cause of your horse’s weaving, the better chance you’ll have to curb it.
Humans have spent hundreds of years selectively breeding our horses to be smart, trainable, and willing companions.
It’s no surprise that an intelligent horse cooped up in a stall all day may begin to negatively act out.
If you think your horse might be bored and lacking mental stimulation, here are some tactics you can try:
- Increased exercise. Exercise is good for a horse’s physical and mental health. If your pasture potato can’t get the exercise he needs to stay sharp, considering asking for help. Going for hand-walks, free lunging, and playing games with your horse all count as exercise, too!
- Toys. Buy your bored pony some toys! You can also make your own entertainment from various stable items, just be sure they’re safe for your horse to kick and nip. Balls of various sizes make excellent toys for horses large and small. Check out my post on Toys to Relieve Boredom in Horses.
- Trick training and natural horsemanship. Brush up on your training skills and learn something new with your horse. Teaching a horse simple tricks engages his mind, and it’s a fun way for you to interact with your horse on his terms. And, you’ll improve your horsemanship at the same time.
Lack of Social Interaction
Horses are social herd animals. They prefer the company of their own kind, and horses that don’t receive enough social interaction often suffer for it.
If there’s a shortage of suitable herdmates at your barn, consider moving your horse to a larger stable.
If he must stay at home, bringing in a retired equine pasture puff, donkey, or goat companion could help improve his mental health.
Wild horses aren’t kept in stables, but such is the way of life for the modern domesticated equine. Depending on your location and circumstances, your horse may spend more time in his stall than you’d like. This can lead to stable vices like weaving.
Horses are designed for roaming and foraging. In the wild, they spend all day walking around, looking for food.
If your horse is confined for long periods of time, consider adding hand-walking to his regimen. As always, more pasture time with his friends is generally the best solution.
Horses become stressed and anxious if they are kept away from other horses. If there’s no medical reason for your horse to be isolated from others in his herd, try keeping him in a stable with other horses.
Using a stall guard instead of a solid door may also help your horse get more social contact from his neighbors. Remember safety is a factor when choosing a stall guard so be sure to read my guide to choosing a stall guard.
If he must be alone, try using a safe mirror or large poster featuring another horse. (source)
Some horses react poorly to stressful situations. Moving to a new location, quickly adding a new herdmate, or abruptly weaning a foal from its mother could all cause lasting effects on a horse’s well-being.
Try to prepare your horse as best you can for stressful situations. Proper training and careful planning can help a horse feel more comfortable during a move, visit from the veterinarian, or weaning.
Changes in Stable Management
If your horse doesn’t handle changes well, take the time to implement proper training techniques and give him time to adjust.
You don’t usually want to change a horse’s food or exercise routine suddenly, as this can cause physical health problems as well as mental ones.
Give your horse time to adjust to new horses in his barn, new caretakers, or new surroundings.
Scientific research suggests that weaving and other stereotypic behaviors may begin when a horse is a foal.
If a horse is taken from his mother too quickly during the weaning process, or fed too much concentrate, he may be at risk for becoming a weaver later on – a behavior he may not even exhibit until he’s 5 years old, or more.
While you don’t have any control over what happened to your horse in the past, if you know where he came from, consider finding out about their weaning practices.
Horses that are allowed to wean as naturally as possible are less likely to exhibit stereotypic behavior than those removed from their mothers too soon. (source)
Is Weaving Curable?
Like other stereotypic behaviors, weaving isn’t “curable”, per se. However, the behavior may be managed with proper care and attention, and it might disappear for long periods of time.
Sometimes weaving can be temporary and is brought on by sudden changes in a horse’s routine.
If you’ve recently moved your horse, changed his diet or exercise routine, or added other significant changes to his day-to-day life, give him some time to adjust. The weaving might disappear as suddenly as it arrived once he settles down.
If you’re still concerned, or you notice other concerning behavior, don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian for professional advice.
Is Weaving Contagious?
Some owners are worried that stereotypical behaviors are contagious – they don’t want their horses to learn bad habits from others. Scientifically speaking, there is little evidence to support this. (source)
These abnormal behaviors are neurological, and they are often sparked by events that happened early in the horse’s life. However, horses that are kept in similar conditions may be at higher risk for the same behaviors, but that is more likely due to coincidence and common stable management practices.
Is Weaving Dangerous to a Horse’s Health?
Weaving is a stable vice, but it is rarely harmful to a horse’s physical health. If a horse’s weaving is temporary, there likely won’t be any lasting side effects.
If your horse has been weaving for a long time, he may suffer uneven hoof wear, damage to his joints, or there may be damage to the stable floor.
Weavers may also suffer from strained ligaments, loss of condition, and poor performance.
What Can I Do to Stop It?
Your best bet is to pinpoint the source of your horse’s behavior and make changes where appropriate.
- Behavioral management. Extra exercise, training, and spending quality time with your horse can all help improve his behavior. Adding toys and more foraging opportunities to his day (feeding less food at more frequent intervals, adding a hay net or slow feeder) could also help.
- Stable management. As much as possible, ensure that your horse is spending enough time outdoors with other horses and that he isn’t isolated. Adding windows, stall guards, or companions to his stable could help.
- Pasture management. Make sure that your horse gets along with his herdmates. He doesn’t need to be best friends with every horse in the barn, but if he’s stressed and bullied, his health may suffer. You may have to experiment a bit to find a good fit. Also, consider how your horse is grazing. If he’s constantly standing in the same spot to eat his food, he may be more likely to stand there and weave. Consider feeding him in different locations to make him work for his food a little bit more.
Should I Buy a Horse That Weaves?
Selecting a horse with a known stable vice is a complicated and personal decision.
Be honest with yourself and your abilities. If you’re a green horseman without much experience, you may not want to purchase a horse that requires extra attention and care.
Consider your stable setup as well – if your horse would be at high risk for a stable vice in the place he’s going to be kept, consider finding alternative arrangements, or an alternative companion.
Because weaving is a fairly mild condition with a low risk of serious health implications, you might just need a little help from your veterinarian or trainer to work on this issue.
At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to decide if a weaving horse is right for you – but even a horse with a stable vice or two can make a lasting companion.