Help! My Horse Keeps Tossing His Head at Mealtime!

A veterinarian and equine behavior expert addresses a possible learned head tossing behavior at feeding time.
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Help! My Horse Keeps Tossing His Head at Mealtime!
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Q: My horse started to toss his head at mealtime when I boarded my friend’s Arabian mare, who has tossed her head during feeding time as long as I’ve known her (which is prior to my friend owning her!). The mare has a history of ulcers and gastric upset, which I assumed was related to her developing this behavior. It only took a few weeks of living together for my gelding to start tossing his head just like the mare. It’s such an aggressive head toss that I worry will hurt his neck. She’s been gone from my property for nearly five years, but my gelding still has this annoying habit. How can I break him of it?

A: Oh, boy! As I suggested in my previous commentary, there are always compelling examples of horses seeming to learn things from other horses, and this is one of them. Regardless of how he picked it up, your horse now has this behavior. It’s kind of impossible to solve particular problems without seeing the horse and the living situation in person. But I have some ideas that might help.

First, as you already acknowledged, it’s always possible that a change in behavior has emerged in association with physical problems. So it would be good to get your horse checked out by a veterinarian or referral institution. It’s possible that he has ulcers or dental problems, or maybe this is part of the headshaking syndrome we discussed previously.

Assuming it is not a physical problem, and before I go further, we should determine what to call this behavior. Unless he does this at different times and not just at feeding as you stated, I probably wouldn’t call it a stereotypy. Instead, I would at least acknowledge that this head tossing is some kind of conditioned response. All the little things we do in preparation for providing feed, as well as a predictable feeding schedule, become conditioned stimuli indicating feed is coming soon and can trigger physiological and behavioral events. This is similar to Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell that they learned to associate with feeding time. In lots of cases, this is manifested by horses pawing at the door; in your case, he’s tossing his head

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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