Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Question: I've moved my horse home from the boarding barn, and now he's restless and nervous. What's going on?

I have owned horses my entire life but I recently purchased a 17 year old gelding.  He is in very good health aside from a little bit of arthritis which I am giving him Adequan monthly and he has remain very sound.  Do to all the changes in the economy, the gas prices are killing me, so I was forced to bring him home from the stable.  He now has a big 14 x 14 stall and his own two acre lot.  However, he is not quite as thrilled as I thought he would be.  I am now being told that he has always been at a show barn with lots of horses and lots of activity.  He is a nervous wreck.  It’s been two days and he is pacing back and forth in his stall nearly constantly.  If I tie him, he stands very quiet and relaxed, or if I ride him or lead him out to eat some grass he’s great.  As soon as I put him back in the stall he starts pacing from one corner to the next. 

It’s been my experience that if a horse is nervous, whether you tie them or not, they will fidget (pawing or moving back and forth).  I can’t understand why he relaxes when he is tied?  Also, as long as he is eating he’s fine.  I finally went to bed on Sunday night and figured if he’s going to pace there is nothing I can do about it.  When I got up this morning, I looked out the window and he was standing fine.  As soon as I opened the door to go feed him he started again.  At 17 yrs old, will he adjust?  I have no idea what to do.  I’m hoping once I get him on the grass free choice he will be outside and do better.  But he has not been on grass for nearly two years so I need to be careful and slowly increase his turnout time.  Lord knows all I need is for him to colic.  Please let me know what you think.  He is normally a very quiet and cooperative horse.  He’s an excellent show horse and so quiet that my 3 yr old niece can ride him, but not now.  I would appreciate any advice you can give me.

Congrats on your new horse!  Bringing home a new horse and getting to know him is always exciting, although sometimes it can be challenging.

Pacing or stall-walking it a stereptypy - a repetitive behavior that's done for no apparent reason.  Horses perform stereotypies in responses to stress.  It helps them cope with the stress, and even once the source of stress is removed, most horses continue performing stereotypies.

You didn't mention whether or not your horse paced in his stall in the boarding barn - that may be because he wasn't stalled, you didn't see him there, or because he didn't pace before. I would guess that he did pace before but perhaps you never saw it.  If so, this is part of your horse's character now, and you will have little chance of stopping it.  If he does better once out on pasture, then I would leave him there (or set things up where he can go to his stall or pasture on his own terms).  Some horses who stall-walk will be perfectly fine out in pasture.

If you know that he did not pace before you brought him home, then moving him may have caused enough stress to cause him to pace.  If he had lived at the previous farm for a long time, moving someplace completely new can be stressful.  He also may be reacting to being alone.  Horses are herd animals and do best when they have other horses living with them.  They need the comfort, social interactions and security that a herd provides.  When you are working with him, tie him up or are outside while he grazes, he may feel enough security from your presence to alleviate his stress.  Bringing in another horse, even a miniature horse, may give him the herdmate he needs and help him stop pacing.

Another possibility is that his pacing is related to feeding time.  You mention that he's fine in the morning until he sees you, and then he starts pacing.  if he's only pacing around dinner time or when he sees you come out, then he may be anxious about being fed.  Horses who have been on a irregular feeding schedule or were once neglected and horses who are lower in the herd hierarchy (and thus may have to fight for their food) feel stress and may pace to relieve that stress.  Keeping him on a regular feeding schedule, making sure he has a safe place to eat where no other horse can get his food, and leaving him alone while he eats may help him overcome his stress and stop pacing.

Pacing can be frustrating, and horses who pace can tear up their stall floor.  Try some of the management changes listed above and see if that helps your horse.