Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Question: Why are my horses eating the bark off my trees?

We have a herd of seven horses of various breeds.  We live on approximately one hundred wooded acres.  We partially cleared approximately ten acres for horses leaving it heavily wooded.  We supplement with year round hay and they receive grain each day that is prepared by a livestock/equine nutrition expert that is a family member.  They are in good condition.  We use them primarily for trail riding and my daughter gives some riding lessons in the summer.  She went to college for equine management and training.  None of our contacts have seen this behavior either.  These horses have been eating the bark off the trees.  They have completely killed an area of three acres.  The stripped these trees up to approximately twenty feet.  They loosen the bark and peel it up until it breaks.  I'm stumped.  Any suggestions?

It can be very frustrating to deal with behaviors that not only seem to have no cause but also are so damaging to your property!  It sounds like your horses are displaying a form of the stereotypy wood-chewing.  A stereotypy is a repeatitive behavior with no apparent cause.  However when you start to look at stereotypic behaviors, we see that they often have a cause.  In the case of wood-chewing, some behaviorists theorize that the horses are missing nutrients.  Other times, the horses are frustrated and that causes stress that comes out in the form of stereotypies.  Since your property is heavily wooded, I'm going to guess there's not a lot of available grass.  If you are supplementing with square bales instead of round bales or if your round bales are not good quality, your horses may be frustrated because they don't have forage available 24/7.  Horses are made to eat throughout the day, and when they can't sometimes they turn to wood-chewing to deal with their frustration.

I have a wood-chewer, and he does much better when he has constant access to either grass or hay (in the form of a round bale), and when he's in a stall he also does better if he has a mineral block to chew on.  You might try those two things and see if they help.  Unfortunately, sometimes once horses start chewing wood, they are reluctant to stop - even once you've given them alternatives.  At that point, you either have to let them kill off your trees or restrict their access to the trees by wrapping tree trunks in chicken wire or covering the tree trunks in something like "Chew Stop" or a similar product.

The Question: How do I help my new horse settle into our home?

We recently bought a 16 yr old Arab. She has been on the same ranch for 5 years and has never left. We will be bringing her to our home soon. What should I do to make her adjustment to a new home easier? 

Congrats on your new horse! Bringing a new one home is always exciting - and maybe just a little nerve-wracking. You want your horse's first experiences with you to be good ones, and that includes her experience moving into a new home. The good news is that horses are very adaptable! Most move into new homes with little, if any, problems. I've moved horses cross-country with no issues at all.
There are a few things you can do to make her transition as smooth as possible. First, find out what her schedule is like in her current home and how she's housed. Try to keep her on a similar schedule and in similar housing at first. For instance, if she's used to being fed grain twice a day and kept in a stall at night, try to do that at home and slowly ease her into a new schedule.
Also find out how she is with other horses. If she's very timid, you might want to put her in with a less dominant horse so she won't get picked on. However if she's a very dominant mare, you might not want to pair her up with an equally dominant horse or a battle could ensue.
Find out what she's used to eating and how much. If you will be switching to a different feed, ask the sellers if you can buy some of their feed to take home with your mare. Then gradually switch her over to your feed. The first few feedings, feed her normal feed. Then replace a quarter of her normal ration with your food and gradually increase the amount of your feed in her ration until she's eating only your feed.
When bringing a new horse home, it is always a good idea to quarantine them from other horses for about two weeks. You can keep her where she can see other horses but cannot touch them. This protects the resident horses from diseases the new horse might bring with her.
After quarantine is over, gradually introduce your mare to her new herd. You can start by putting her in a paddock next to the pasture where she can meet the horses over the fence. Then put her in the paddock with one other horse and once the two of them are getting along, you can introduce her to the herd. Do this after everyone has eaten and when there is plenty of daylight available. Keep an eye on her and make sure she does ok with everyone.
Good luck with your new horse - I'm sure she'll settle in quickly with just a little help from you!
The Equine Behaviorist

Welcome to the Equine Behaviorist Q & A Blog

In the past, I've posted the questions I receive via email and my answers on my webpage.  However having to edit the HTML and make all the updates gets time consuming and consequently I don't make as many updates as I should.  So I decided to enter the 21st century and start a behavior blog.

I'll use this blog to post questions I receive and my answers.  I get dozens of behavior questions per month, so I cannot answer all of them.  I'm going to do my best to try to update the blog once a week, though, so keep an eye.  Hopefully we can learn more about horse behavior together!