Equine stereotypic behaviors: Causation, occurrence, and prevention

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Abstract

There are strong suggestions that equine stereotypies are connected to poor welfare and a suboptimal management and/or stabling environment. Different forms of equine stereotypic behaviors have been described. Crib biting, weaving, and box walking are considered the most prevalent. Several studies have been conducted to establish links between the underlying causes and potential function of such behaviors. Both experimental and epidemiological studies have indicated management factors specifically feeding practices, housing conditions, and weaning method as crucial in the development of stereotypies in stabled horses. Some neurological studies on equine stereotypy demonstrated some forms of central nervous system dysfunction as being associated with the performance of stereotypic behaviors. Different researchers hypothesized that the functional significance of stereotypies is that they reduce stress in captive environments and should thus be considered as a coping mechanism. In contrast, the owner's perspective is often that a stereotypic horse has a “stable vice” that needs to be stopped, and different kinds of methods have been developed to control or regulate stereotypic behaviors. However, if the stress-reducing hypothesis is correct, controlling stereotypic behaviors particularly by physical and surgical approaches without addressing the underlying causes is of great concern to the horse's welfare. Although there is ongoing uncertainty about the exact function, the growing knowledge about causation should be applied: under all circumstances prevention is better than cure.

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