Category Archives: behaviour


Box-walking is a repetitive behaviour problem that is most commonly seen in stabled horses. It may reflect frustration of their motivation to move and exercise and can be treated and/or prevented by providing plenty of forage, turnout and social contact.

Box-walking is the name given to describe characteristic, repetitive pacing movements that a horse may make around its stable. The horse typically paces around the sides of the confined area and may seem preoccupied with this behaviour and have difficulty stopping.

Locomotory stereotypies such as weaving and box-walking are considered to reflect aspects of the horse’s natural behaviour that are being prevented by the limited stable environment. Various studies have shown that horses with repetitive movement problems are more likely to be stabled, with low forage and few opportunities for social contact.

Box-walking in particular may reflect the horse’s strong motivation to walk and graze, which is limited within a stable. It may be seen more frequently in horses that have a particularly strong desire to exercise, such as high performance/endurance horses, or those that find the stable environment stressful.

Box walking can become problematic in that the horse not only disturbs his bedding (creating characteristic pathways where they are pacing), but he expends considerable energy (leading to potential weight retention problems) and may, in extreme cases, develop asymmetrical musculature if they always walk in the same direction, giving rise to problems in performance under the saddle.

If extremely stressed he may sweat, tremble and even damage himself on the sides of the stable doors/openings in trying to escape the stable. It may be difficult to manage your horse from within the stable as they find it difficult to stop pacing.

Box-walking may also cause excessive wear of shoes or hooves, particularly if the stable floor is concreted.  However, there is no real evidence that box walking reduces performance in the majority of cases and the term ‘vice’ is not very helpful.

Treatment options addressing the cause of the behaviour are more likely to result in a reduction in box-walking. This is because they will reduce the desire to perform the behaviour, although the extent to which they work will differ between individuals. Treatment options should particularly focus on increasing turnout, increasing visual and physical contact possibilities with other horses from within its stable, and increasing foraging opportunities, e.g.:

  • Increasing turnout with other horses to a maximum and reducing stabled time to a minimum.
  • Having other horses within the stable or opposite/next to the horse, with which it can interact fully at a social level.
  • Lowering the internal walls between stables or, if there are problems with unfamiliar individuals being next to each other, placing bars or a grilled window in the separating wall (although note this means that the horses will have direct contact that may be relevant for disease control problems).
  • Use of more windows or openings in the stable so that the horse has a wider view of the outside environment and choice.
  • Placing a specially designed mirror surface within the stable to mimic visual access to neighbours.
  • Increasing forage, i.e. hay/haylage.
  • Barn housing, ie loose group of horses within a barn or yard.
  • Provide feeding enrichment, e.g. a variety of forages in haynets hung around the stable or a foodball, so extending feeding time and acting as a distraction at key times for the behaviour.


Bolting is the term used when a horse gallops off out of control and the rider is unable to stop it. In addition to being very frightening for the rider, this can also be very dangerous for the horse, rider and others around them.

Animals can be categorised as fight or flight animals, depending on their response to a threatening situation. Fight animals will try to fight the threat by, for example, biting, kicking or using horns/antlers. Flight animals flee from the situation and try to outrun the threat.

Horses are flight animals and they have what is known as a ‘flight zone’, and will flee from any threat within a certain distance. Horses have therefore evolved to have the stamina to run fast for long distances, or at least for long enough to outrun any predators, which are often designed for short bursts of speed rather than for long periods.

Through training, most domestic horses have learnt not to show this bolting response to threatening situations. However, with some horses or in certain circumstances, the natural response takes over and the horse bolts.

There are two types of bolting horses:

  • The ‘true’ bolters appear to be in a blind panic and completely disregard the rider and their attempts to stop the horse. This behaviour is completely unpredictable and is extremely dangerous, as horses have been known to run onto roads and straight into vehicles and fences.
  • Other horses ‘take off’ with the rider, often due to high spirits, and can eventually be stopped. This tends to be quite predictable, as horses will tend to ‘take off’ in open areas and in places they are usually allowed to canter or gallop. Horses often ‘take off’ when their rider allows them to race with other horses. Some horses may do this due to lack of schooling and either a lack of understanding of the fact that the rider is asking them to slow down or due to lack of motivation. They may also ‘take off’ due to over-feeding and insufficient exercise.

‘True’ bolters

Dealing with ‘true’ bolters is very difficult due to the unpredictability of it and the fact that the horse does not pay any attention to the rider at all. It is possible that the horse bolts due to pain, and as with most behavioural problems, the horse should be thoroughly checked by a vet, and its tack checked by a saddler.

Persistent bolters should not be ridden out on roads or in wide open public places, as the risk to others is too great. A safely enclosed area is the only place a bolter should be ridden, and even then there are no guarantees that the horse will not attempt to bolt.

In the interests of safety, it may be that a persistent bolter should no longer be ridden, as the risk to the horse, rider and those around them is simply too great.

Horses that ‘take off’

These horses can often be stopped by the rider. Some riders suggest pulling sharply on alternate reins, bridging the reins across the horse’s neck and pulling as hard as possible or ‘sawing’ on the reins. The assumption here is that the stronger you use your commands the more likely the horse is to respond. These methods, however should be avoided as they are all likely to cause the horse extreme pain and may make the horse more difficult to stop as he tries to flee from the pain.

A more humane and successful approach is to turn the horse in a large circle. This unbalances the horse and forces it to slow down. Gradually decreasing the circle will cause the horse to slow down further. For this reason, horses that are prone to ‘taking off’, should be ridden in open areas where there is space to turn and where the ground is good so the horse won’t slip or fall.

Some horses are able to get their tongue over the bit, which makes them very difficult to control, and thus able to ‘take off’ with the rider. The bit should be checked to ensure it fits correctly and perhaps a different bit or different nose-band used. Horses that bolt due to disobedience should be carefully schooled to ensure they understand the rider’s commands, starting on the lunge and progressing to ridden work.

Horses that bolt due to high spirits can be lunged prior to being ridden to allow them to get rid of excess energy, without putting the rider at risk. The horse’s feeding and exercise regime should be examined to ensure he is not being over-fed and under-exercised. Riders should avoid allowing their horse to canter or gallop in the same places each time as the horse learns this and associates these areas with cantering, and should avoid racing other horses. If cantering in a group, a horse that is prone to ‘taking off’ should be ridden at the front to prevent it from trying to over-take other horses which may cause them to take off too.


Equine behaviour can be difficult to understand, especially aggressive behaviour. If you want to understand more about why your horse exhibits certain aggressive behavioural traits, this information should shed some light on them!

Aggression is primarily a form of communication used to establish precedence and consists of threats or harmful actions directed towards an individual. Horses in the wild show very little overt physical aggression as they normal live in stable social groups. When they do occur, aggressive encounters are normally short-lived and end with one individual retreating away from the situation.

Broadly speaking aggression occurs when a horse perceives some form of threat to itself or when frustrated. Horses are not maliciously aggressive, although some medical problems can result in severe aggressive behaviour. It is important to differentiate aggression from potentially similar looking behaviours which can cause injury such as play fighting, nipping and overzealous grooming behaviour.

Aggression can be subdivided into type based on

  • target, e.g. owner or horse directed
  • body postures (offensive and defensive)
  • the focus of competition, e.g. food related
  • the involvement of disease, e.g. pain related,
  • the hormonal status of the animal involved, e.g. maternal aggression

These terms are merely contextual cues which help clarify the circumstances of the behaviour. It is important to appreciate that in most cases a horse is behaving aggressively because it perceives some form of threat to itself (this may be real or imaginary) and has no opportunity to escape from the situation.

Aggressive behaviours are usually “normal”, but when they result in human or animal injury, the behaviour is dangerous and unacceptable. Human safety must always be a primary consideration when discussing aggression.

Some aggression may have abnormal components to it and be the direct result of disease or experience and learning. Since health problems and degenerative changes may be present, a thorough medical examination is essential in any case of aggression to determine if pain is involved.

It is normal for a horse to resist stimulation of a painful focus, and if the preliminary threats are not recognised, the horse may appear to behave aggressively quite suddenly as it learns that mild threats are ignored. Tack should also be examined to check for its potential to cause pain when in contact with the horse, e.g. an uneven saddle.

By watching the body postures, it is possible to get an indication of what a horse may do. When a horse is reacting to intrusion, the first sign may be simply a laying back of the ears or wrinkling of the nose. If the horse is likely to lunge forward in an offensive way, the tail often becomes raised and the head is thrust forwards with a possible attempt made at biting.

Before an overt charge the horse is likely to show its intention through powerful lashing of its tail and a stamping of its feet first; this type of aggression is more commonly seen when the horse is trying to protect something nearby, e.g. a mare with her foal. More commonly, horses turn their rump towards a threat in order to deter further approach (rather than drive away as occurs with a frontal assault), the tail is normally tucked in and a foot will usually be raised first as a threat and kicking only follows if this signal is ignored. The horse may kick with one or both hind feet.

A couple of important behaviours which should not be mistaken for aggressive behaviour are jaw snapping and turning away. In jaw snapping the lips are pulled back to expose champing teeth, the head is usually lowered and the tail tucked. This is not an aggressive behaviour but rather a form of cautious approach indicating unease in the situation and sometimes may be a sign that the horse is looking for guidance about what it should do. Turning away with the ears loose or half back is a behaviour used by a horse to indicate that it is giving way to another.

Obviously in both of these situations it is important that these gestures are recognised for what they are and the horse not punished as this may provoke aggression by the horse in response to what it might see as a mindless attack from its handler when it was trying to make the peace.

The distance between the horse and the intruder can be important in determining the response. This is often called the “flight” zone. If space allows, it is normal for one individual to retreat in the presence of threats when its flight zone is crossed. Exactly who it is that retreats depends on the perceived outcome of the encounter.

If a horse thinks that it is very likely to lose the encounter, or the cost of defence is likely to be very high, or the resource is not very valuable to it, it is likely to retreat in the face of an aggressive threat. However, if any of the opposite conditions apply then it may stand its ground.

A horse will also have to stand its ground if it is unable to retreat and this is one of the reasons why aggression is quite common in the stable – it has nowhere to go. Also when a horse is in its stable, it may try to protect the resources it has and value things like its food or personal space very highly and so become protective on them. If someone enters the block then when it is feeding, the horse may respond aggressively as it sees this intrusion as a threat, even if there is no intention to remove anything.

Horses are naturally afraid of new or unfamiliar things and circumstances, and may act aggressively towards things they are forced to endure, in an attempt to remove them. It must be remembered that the horse does not know that these things are harmless and that it is still being driven by its evolutionary instincts of self-preservation.

Horses are also sensitive to the quality of movement around them, paying more attention to jerky movements than calm, gentle flowing ones. For these reasons horses may be aggressive towards nervous people who enter the stable. It is not surprising that the horse tries to remove the intruder in the only way it knows how, i.e. through aggressive threats. This does not mean that the horse is nasty, its just a consequence of the circumstances.

Unfortunately, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy as this makes the person even more nervous in the future and more likely to be attacked. It is therefore important that nervous individuals are kept away from horses in confined spaces. The best way to calm a nervous horse is to remain relaxed, but to remain vigilant in case the fear heightens and aggression intensifies.

If approached rapidly or carelessly, a horse may go through the stages of aggressive threats very quickly and attack the victim before he/she can react. Horses that are mildly fearful may calm down if the person shows no fear and waits until it settles, without making any gestures that could be seen to be threatening, such as sudden movements. Because most aggression relates to a perceived threat, punishment is generally not appropriate as this confirms to the horse that there was something to be feared and is likely to make matters worse in the long-term and may, in the short-term, result in a serious escalation of the behaviour.

Aggression is the most serious and dangerous behaviour problem that horse owners are likely to encounter. For this reason it is essential to determine accurately the prognosis (the chances of safe and effective correction) through developing an appropriate treatment plan; these problems are usually best handled with a vet or applied animal behaviourist.

Treatment must first be directed at preventing possible injury. This means that aggressive horses should be kept away from nervous or inexperienced individuals, and professional assistance sought as a matter of urgency. The horse should not just be abandoned until it “learns some manners”, but will need careful and compassionate re-education.

Pain-induced aggression is usually elicited by some form of handling or contact that elicits pain or discomfort. However, even if your horse is not exhibiting pain, many medical conditions make a horse more irritable and perhaps more prone to aggression. Fear and anxiety further confound many of these cases. If your horse learns that aggression is successful at removing the stimulus, aggression may recur when similar situations arise in the future, whether or not the pain is still present.

Treatment first requires that the medical or painful condition is resolved; this may require the attention of both a vet and qualified veterinary physiotherapist as the focus can be quite difficult to determine. Then, you should identify the types of handling and situations that have led to aggression in the past.

With desensitisation and counter-conditioning, your horse can slowly and gradually be accustomed to accept and enjoy these situations. Once the horse learns that there is no more discomfort associated with the handling, but that there may be rewards, the problem should be resolved.

This is not uncommon and frequently takes one of two forms – protective aggression (discussed above) and barging or aggression due to over exuberance which has accidentally been rewarded.

With protective aggression the horse can be taught to accept removal of the food bucket by going through sham exercises. You enter the stable with an empty food bucket and put it in its normal position, the horse is then allowed to inspect the bucket and when it realises that there is nothing there will often allow you to remove it. This is then done and the bucket replaced with a small amount of feed. The main daily feed is then divided up into small amounts and the exercise repeated so the horse learns that removal of the bucket means not that it is losing anything, but that it is a signal for it to return with more in it.

Aggression can also be learned because the horse that is excited by the arrival of the feed, inadvertently nips or barges the handler, who soon gives the horse its feed as this is what they were here to do. In these cases the horse must not be rewarded in this way and the handler must leave the stable with the bucket. They may then return and try again, however, the handler must be prepared for an escalation if the horse gets frustrated.

The easiest way to resolve this is to train the horse away from feeding time to respond to a command to go to the back of the stable and slowly introduce this whenever they enter the stable. It helps if the normal feeding time is changed so the horse cannot predict when food is coming. In some cases it is necessary to enter with an empty feed bucket in order to desensitise the horse to this cue. It may also be necessary to tie the horse up prior to feeding while it learns the command.

If your horse is fed from a manger, it is not uncommon for a horse to become aggressive once the food is placed into it. From a horse’s perspective, this is the time that the horse takes ownership and so protective responses are triggered. This can be treated using exercises similar to those discussed above, to teach the horse to yield at this point.

There are several reasons why this may occur and the most common ones relate to some unpleasant association being learned. It may be that the horse is resisting being taken away from a close social partner in the field, or that the horse is trying to avoid what happens after it is removed. To us, a stable may seem like a comfortable place for a horse, but for a horse it is a place of social isolation and may not appear so pleasant.

Also, if the horse has some underlying injury (these can be quite subtle and difficult to detect), it may be predicting that coming in is associated with being ridden and responding to this association. It is therefore important to examine the situation carefully and seek assistance as necessary.

Aggression that is directed towards a person or object that did not provoke the behaviour is called redirected aggression. This is likely to occur when the horse is highly aroused by something outside the stable and a person in the stable tries to intervene to “quieten it down”. Horses who are highly aroused must not be directly challenged or threatened as this is likely to provoke aggression.

Since redirected aggression arises from other arousing triggers, it is important to identify and treat the primary cause of aggression, and to prevent the problem. This can be accomplished by avoiding exposure to the stimulus for the aggression until the horse has been carefully desensitised to the exciting stimuli, through a controlled exposure regime.