Horses can experience the same kind of boredom as humans, and oftentimes it manifests as habits that we may brush off as just odd quirky things our horses do. This may be their way of telling you they are bored or need more enrichment in their life – but it could also just be naughty habits.
You may not be able to tell right away, but here are 11 signs of a Bored Horse:
1. Pawing at the Ground
Pawing at the ground could be a sign of boredom, much like you tapping your foot or twiddling your thumbs.
This could also be a sign of frustration like wanting a carrot that your horse just witnessed you give to his neighbor.
Pawing or digging at the ground in certain contexts could mean that your horse is in distress and sometimes is one of the first signs of colic [Source].
You should get to know your horse’s individual habits.
Does your horse immediately start pawing when you put on the saddle, or does he start to paw after he’s been standing on cross ties for 20 minutes while you’ve been meticulously pulling shavings out of his tail (because you would never forgive yourself if you pulled out any of his hair while brushing)? This could be a sign your horse is bored or is becoming impatient.
You may want to alter your routine by maybe grooming him in his stall and only pulling him out to tack up. Or maybe you give him a break by putting him in his stall before your go out to ride.
Imagine you were told to stand still while tied up to a wall and you were told to wait there for 5 minutes. Probably not too bad. Now imagine waiting there for 30 minutes. That would get pretty boring.
Not all horses crib, but if your horse does – it may suggest boredom or even anxiety.
Cribbing is when a horse grips a solid object – sometimes fencing, buckets or wood – with its teeth, arches its neck and then contracts the muscles of the lower neck to retract the larynx. If you don’t see the behavior in action, you can usually hear a characteristic grunting sound. [Source]
Cribbing can be due to several medically related reasons that should be explored especially if this is a new behavior for your horse.
Another reason horses may suddenly adopt this behavior is watching a neighbor horse do the behavior – monkey see monkey do.
Cribbing can also be triggered by a change in environment that may be stressful to a horse like a change in routine, location or perhaps more time spent inside their stall versus out in the paddock.
The best way to stop cribbing is preventing it from happening.
Besides trying to keep your horse occupied so they don’t get bored and revert to cribbing, you can purchase anti-cribbing devices your horse can wear if you are unable to deter them from doing the behavior in the first place.
Many people who are not familiar with this behavior may perceive this behavior as something funny they can video and show to their friends.
This behavior is a characteristic rhythmic swaying or bobbing of the head and neck usually from side to side.
It can also be accompanied by the horse shifting it’s weight on its legs from side to side, or even side stepping in some fashion.
During these movements, the horse may look locked in focus in a trance like state.
This behavior can be linked to other stress causing events besides boredom like separation anxiety from a companion, a sudden change in routine or a sudden change in environment.
Although this behavior itself is not extremely dangerous, it can lead to weight loss and unwanted wear and tear of the joints and ligaments of the legs, feet, head, and neck.
Additionally, this stall behavior can expend a lot of energy which could lead to a decrease in performance for sport horses. [Source]
4. Stall Walking
Stall walking is similar to weaving in the sense that it can be extremely energy expending and is primarily due to discontent with the horses environment ie: being kept inside their stall too long, a change in their routine, change in their surroundings, or separation anxiety.
Instead of swaying back and forth, the horse will continuously pace the perimeter of their stall. Usually the faster the horse is moving around the stall, the more anxiety they are displaying.
Much like weaving this behavior can lead to weight loss and wear and tear on your horse’s joints.
5. Fence Walking
Well you may have guessed this one already.
Fence walking is similar to stall walking for horses that are primarily kept outside.
Like stall walking, fence walking can be due to boredom, separation anxiety, or changes in their environment.
This behavior should catch your eye as there may be a reason your horse is by the fence – especially the gate that may lead back to the barn. It’s possible that your horse may have had enough time outside due to heat or bugs, or they may be out of water in their paddock and want to come inside for water.
Regardless what the reason may be, it may be best to bring your horse in regardless because anxiety and boredom can lead to frustration.
Frustrated horses can make bad decisions and put themselves at risk for injury.
6. Biting Cross Ties
There could be a few reasons behind horses biting at cross ties. A lot of it comes down to boredom especially if your horse starts to bite after several minutes on the cross ties.
This could be an anticipatory stress response as they know something they don’t want is coming ie: tacking up, clipping legs, cleaning their sheath, etc.
This should be somewhat noticeable if your horse starts to do this behavior the second they hear the clippers turn on, or the instant they spot you coming around the corner with your saddle.
If your horse only does their behavior during certain parts of your routine like currying their backs, or tightening your girth – this may indicate more physical distress that is causing them frustration and or pain that illicit the behavior of biting at the cross ties.
Boredom on cross ties is very common especially if it’s a long process that you do everyday.
It may be best to break up this routine by grooming your horse and then giving them a 5 minute break back In their stalls before you bring them out again to tack up.
You may also want to alternate where you do certain activities (in the aisle versus in the stall) if it is possible and safe to do so.
Although his behavior may be annoying, if there’s no medical reason behind it – it’s mostly harmless to your horse, you might just end up replacing your barn’s cross ties every now and again.
7. Biting Reins
Biting reins is another more expensive habit that horses can do sometimes out of boredom.
Young horses also tend to have a more oral fixation with things and may go to grab at the reins. This behavior is tough and frustrating as sometimes replacing reins can be just as expensive is buying a whole new bridle!
Similar to the biting of cross ties, it’s important to notice when this behavior is happening. This behavior can mean different things if it only happens when you are standing in the middle of the ring chatting with barn buddies or when you’re leading your horse out to the ring to ride. The best way to avoid this behavior is to keep your horse busy and prevent the behavior.
Limit your time using your pony as a couch and sitting and talking with friends.
Some horses don’t mind social hour hanging out in the middle of the ring, but some horses would rather be walking and talking.
Spraying “no chew” or bitter liquid on your reins helps – just be careful to pick something that is leather friendly.
Additionally, some horses are more drawn to leather more than they are to rubber, so potentially swapping your reins for rubber reins (and keeping your leather ones safe in your tack locker) may be a simple fix.
8. Pawing at the Door/Gate
Pawing at the stall door/paddock gate is a potentially dangerous behavior that should be closely monitored.
Some horses do this out of boredom if they’ve been kept outside or inside too long without things to occupy their time.
You can also notice this behavior around dinner time, especially if your horse’s grain is kept close to their door or if you usually have to open their door in order for them to be fed.
The worry here is a horse injuring itself with repetitively striking the door/gate or getting a foot (or horse shoe) stuck. This could cause the horse to panic – and cause injury or damage.
9. Wood Chewing
Wood chewing is different than cribbing in that the horse is not inhaling and arching its neck.
Other than boredom, issues like vitamins deficiencies can cause your horse to chew wood.
Luckily that’s very uncommon with horses who are fed high quality grain, grass and hay.
If you notice your horse doing this behavior inside – they most likely need some more time outside. If you notice doing this behavior more outside – they may need more things to keep their attention.
Things like hay nets or slow feeders are a great way to keep horses busy and although it may not eliminate the behavior completely – it could minimize the damage being done not only to your stall walls and fencing, but to your horse’s teeth and gums! [Source]
10. Kicking the Walls
This behavior is also pretty self-explanatory and should be taken VERY seriously as it can cause horrible damage to your barn as well as your horse.
Nothing is normal about horse kicking out at the walls of their stalls.
Boredom may be the cause of this behavior especially if your horse has learned that every time they do this they get fed an extra flake of hay or get brought outside.
This causes some level of positive reinforcement that unfortunately encourages the behavior.
Getting ahead of this behavior will prevent accidentally encouraging it by providing hay/stall toys before hand to keep your horse occupied instead of supplying it to them as they are doing the behavior.
Pay close attention to any environmental changes that may be causing this behavior – like perhaps a new stall neighbor.
Other medical conditions like ulcers could also cause wall kicking (especially if they do so while eating) – so have your vet come out to give your horse a once over just to be safe.
11. Wind Sucking
This behavior is similar to cribbing, however it’s not necessary for horses to grab onto an object with it’s teeth before arching and sucking air into its throat.
You’ll notice this behavior from hearing horses grunt and suck in versus cribbing where you can notice damage from teeth on buckets and wood ledges.
Although you’re avoiding damage to the teeth and gums, wind sucking can lead to colic [Source]. If you notice this behavior you should investigate ways to keep your horse busy and happy so they are less likely to do this to pass their time.
So there you have it! Get creative to battle boredom and prevent these behaviors before they start. Although there any many commercial solutions available, doing your own DIY projects may be a fun way to combat boredom for YOU and your horse at the same time!
Is your horse eating your barn?: Equimed – Horse Health Matters. EquiMed. (n.d.). https://equimed.com/health-centers/behavior/articles/is-your-horse-eating-your-barn.
Pawing: Equimed – Horse Health Matters. EquiMed. (n.d.). https://equimed.com/diseases-and-conditions/reference/pawing.
Sarah, A. the A. (2020, February 4). Cribbing or Wind Sucking in Horses- a behavioural problem. Ranvet. https://www.ranvet.com.au/cribbing-or-wind-sucking-in-horses/.
Weaving in Horses – SmartPak Equine Health Library. SmartPak Equine. (n.d.). https://www.smartpakequine.com/content/weaving-in-horses.