Undesired behaviour in horses: A review of their development, prevention, management and association with welfare

B. Hothersall*, R. Casey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

53 Citations (Scopus)


Undesired behaviours are a common problem amongst leisure and sporting horses in the UK and have a significant impact on the work of equine practitioners. In most cases, behaviours considered aberrant by owners are normal responses for their horses. Behaviours perceived as naughtiness may in fact signify direct actions to avoid pain- or fear-inducing stimuli. Examples that practitioners might deal with include trailer loading problems, avoidance of having saddlery equipment applied or reluctance to leave the yard. Even where no evidence of physical problems or pain can be detected, avoidance behaviours may reflect learnt responses that previously led to success in evading unpleasant consequences. Because owners often misunderstand the reason for such behaviours to develop in their horses, attempts at resolution often involve suppression or punishment based approaches. Although repeated subjugation of undesirable responses may ultimately appear to resolve the overt behavioural problem in some cases, in many others it can lead to a worsening of the problem, the development of alternative avoidance strategies or the horse learning that escaping the source of its pain or anxiety is impossible and ceasing to respond. Some horses develop abnormal or repetitive behaviours, which are not in the normal behavioural repertoire. These stereotypic behaviours, sometimes termed vices, can indicate strategies to cope with a suboptimal environment. Indeed, their performance may serve to improve the situation for the animal. Attempts to suppress or prevent horses showing stereotypies, therefore, will generally exacerbate the underlying welfare problem. When dealing with either stereotypies or avoidance behaviours, it is important to recognise the role of learning in their development and maintenance. Resolution involves both understanding the underlying motivation for showing the behaviour and how it has become reinforced and established over time, for each individual case. The use of environmental change and/or behavioural modification techniques that are both successful and welfare compatible, are important in dealing with undesired behaviour in horses and selection of suitable professionals for referral an important responsibility for the equine practitioner.

Translated title of the contributionUndesired behaviour in horses: A review of their development, prevention, management and association with welfare
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-485
Number of pages7
JournalEquine Veterinary Education
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


  • horse
  • behaviour
  • avoidance
  • stereotypy
  • welfare


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