Q&A: Curbing a weaver

To discourage weaving, create an environment where a horse’s instinctual needs are met.

Q: I have a palomino Quarter Horse/Arabian mare who weaves. I raised Sugar from a yearling, and she is now over 10 years old, but she didn’t start this behavior until just a few years ago, after I brought her home from a farm and put her in a 12- by 36-foot pen. She’s never been in a stall. I have no idea what happened to cause her to start this. I heard nothing and saw nothing but her going crazy and then weaving as hard as she could. I moved her to the other side of my property into a bigger pen, and she seemed to settle down some, but the weaving stuck. It’s not the same time each day and it’s not all day. She can go a few days without weaving at all, but then she’ll start again.

A woman petting a horse through a pipe corral panel.
Even without being a stall, some horses can develop stereotypies if their environment doesn’t mimic natural conditions..

I’ve tried a number of strategies. I didn’t have her in with other horses at first because she would attack them, but she could always see them and they were never more than four to five feet apart. Since then, I’ve also tried putting her in with other horses. I’ve kept food in front of her 24-7, and I’ve tried not feeding her until she stops weaving. So far, the only thing that has worked has been to catch her about an hour before feeding time and then to tie her to a specific corner where she can’t weave, but I hate to keep doing this. I would appreciate any suggestions to help her stop this behavior. 

A: As with any behavioral issue, please have Sugar examined by a veterinarian to ensure she has no medical, dental, musculoskeletal, vision or hoof issues. In addition to conducting a physical exam, the veterinarian will draw blood to look for endocrine disease, subclinical infection and other internal dysfunctions. Once any underlying health problems are ruled out, you can turn your attention to resolving this unwanted behavior.

It is important to understand that horses evolved as social grazers of the plains, moving and grazing together most of the time, day and night. The nature of the horse is to develop and maintain strong pair and herd bonds. These long-evolved needs and natures have followed Sugar into the domestic environment. Stabled horses sometimes develop unwelcome repetitive behaviors, called stereotypies, to replace the movement and socialization they require to survive. These stereotypies include weaving, which is repeatedly swinging the head from side to side while shifting the weight back and forth on the front legs.

To prevent, resolve and manage stereotypies in horses, it is essential that their guardians recreate natural conditions for their stabled friends. I would suggest a threefold solution for Sugar’s weaving:

1. Miles of daily walking and/or riding. Abundant exercise—for two to three hours each day—appears to be Sugar’s most prevalent behavioral need. Miles of daily hand-walking, riding, hand-grazing or pasture turnout can fulfill much of Sugar’s repressed need to move that incites her to weave.

2. Socialization with other horses. Horses are a social species, and Sugar needs a dependable, compatible, deeply pair-bonded horse friend to provide her with constant companionship. When compatible horses are not available, brushing and massage for an hour each day will help to enrich her life.

3. Constant forage availability. Sugar needs to have an appropriately balanced forage to chew in front of her at all times, as well as a forage-balancing mineral supplement, free-choice salt and fresh, clean water. Instead of having a “feeding time,” make sure her food is always there. When horses become heavy or buzzy, they need more exercise rather than less forage to maintain their metabolic and behavioral health. Constant turnout on pasture is ideal, but when that is unavailable, bedding on clean, wholesome, dust-free straw will re-create her essential “grazing-while-walking” need while your horse is stalled. Horses bedded on appropriate straw are constantly on the move, lipping and nibbling through the straw between bites of hay. This activity helps fulfill a horse’s grazing nature, displacing the need to weave.

To summarize, the near-constant need for friends, forage and locomotion are essential to any horse’s behavioral health. The closer you can come to mimicking Sugar’s natural, instinctive behavior, the more likely you will be able to resolve her weaving. It may take some time for her to unlearn this behavior, but there are no effective shortcuts with horses when it comes to restoring behavioral health. These are tall walking orders, but they are the solution.

Sid Gustafson, DVM
Veterinary Clinic of Big Sky
Big Sky, Montana 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447

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