Box walking in horses can be frustrating. Here, equine behaviour expert Debbie Marsden explains what you can do to reduce your horse showing this behaviour. Box walking is a stereotypy (vice) that’s exacerbated in susceptible horses by excitement, frustration, pleasure, pain and not enough time spent eating.
Animals often perform stereotypies (vices) when they have no control over their situation. Confinement, social isolation, unnatural feeding, over-feeding of grain, constant low-grade pain, the inability to escape frightening or stressful situations, and environments that lack any interest are all contributing factors. Once the behaviour starts, there is a high risk of it becoming habit as performing the action becomes rewarding for the horse. Other stereotypies include windsucking and crib-biting. Read more about stereotypes (vices) from equine behaviour consultant Justine Harrison here.
To reduce the amount of box walking your horse does box, try these:
1. Introduce a calm, frustration-free lifestyle
Avoid strict routines and gradually build a little flexibility into your horse’s daily life, taking care to avoid sudden changes in field mates, work or feeding practices.
Try to keep separation from his companions to a level he can tolerate, then gradually extend this.
2. Feed your horse lots of fibre and reduce the sugar and starch in his diet
Add oil if necessary for energy, and avoid feeds based on grains, such as oats, maize and barley.
A supplement that’s high in the amino acid tryptophan may also be beneficial.
3. Increase feeding time, without giving more feed
You can do this by reducing hard feed and increasing hay. It’s useful to put hay into several small-holed hay nets and setting up two at opposite sides of his stable.
He’ll have to walk about more to eat them.
4. Getting your horse fitter will also help
Work out a fitness plan with your instructor to keep your horse’s brain occupied.
When to get your horse checked out
It can be very difficult to give your horse a ‘natural’ frustration-free lifestyle, but any of these small, practical changes will help.
If you notice a sudden increase in frequency of box walking without any obvious reason for it, ask your vet to check your horse out for any physical issue that could be causing pain.
You could also help increase your horse’s comfort as much as possible by asking your vet for a referral to a chartered veterinary physiotherapist, who is ACPAT registered.