Why Does My Horse Windsuck?
Stable horses often display behavioral issues that can range from annoying to destructive. Windsucking is just one from a line of patternistic behaviors that aren’t viewed favorably by horse-owners or potential buyers.
These behaviors are often termed “stable vices” because they mostly occur in stabled horses.
I think terming it as a vice puts most of the blame on the horse, even though windsucking – like many other behavioral issues – are the direct result of how horses are being looked after by their keepers.
Because windsucking can hide a much bigger problem – not to mention it lowers the resale value of a horse – it’s important to discuss why it happens and what you can do about it.
What is Windsucking?
Windsucking is simply a horse swallowing air by arching its neck and making a gulping sound at the same time.
Windsucking is often thought of as a horse burping. Since horses can’t burp because of the way their digestive tracts are set up, what you may think of as burping is actually windsucking.
Described as such, you may wave it off as nothing serious. However, by examining its underlying causes and its potential ramifications, I’m sure you’ll be convinced that windsucking needs to be taken seriously.
Is Windsucking the Same as Cribbing?
Besides burping, windsucking is often mistaken for cribbing or crib biting. And while there is some overlay between the two, crib biting is actually a horse using its teeth to bite on stable doors or other stationary objects.
The horse will rest its upper teeth on an object and use its lower teeth to grind on a stable door or fence post. However, it can be accompanied by windsucking.
In fact, often when you take away the object of crib biting, a horse will resort to windsucking. So, while they’re different behaviors, they can present themselves together, raising even more concerns about the underlying causes.
Why Do Horses Windsuck?
I mentioned how windsucking is more often found in stabled horses and that there are multiple causes of windsucking in horses.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to cover the most common ones that most likely explain this behavior:
One of the top factors in triggering windsucking in horses is boredom. Horses are intelligent, highly trainable animals that need mental stimulation and exercise.
Horses that are stabled for long periods get neither, therefore, they often resort to windsucking as a coping mechanism.
Also, during stable rest horses can’t socialize or graze on pasture grass, both of which can be detrimental to their mental well-being and could trigger windsucking.
Stress is right up there with boredom when it comes to the underlying causes of windsucking.
A horse can be stressed by a variety of reasons including a stressful environment, lack of companionship, being stalled for long periods of time without any distractions, lack of access to pasture, lack of exercise, disease, being kept in a small enclosure, etc.
Windsucking is then used as a soothing behavior to help the horse calm itself down. As I’ll later explain, this has implications in the treatment of windsucking since its calming effect reinforces the behavior in the horse.
Horses with a certain diet are more prone to windsucking than horses with regular access to pasture and fed primarily on pasture grass and hay.
Horses fed high proportions of sweet and concentrated feeds and insufficient roughage or horses fed with higher amounts of grain are at a higher risk of developing windsucking.
To prevent windsucking, natural nutrition through grazing should be preferred over concentrated feeds and grains.
– Lack of Exercise
Horses are working animals. They need daily exercise to keep in shape.
Horses with little to no exercise can develop windsucking, but also a host of other coping behaviors such as weaving, crib biting, self-mutilation, pacing, etc.
Spending time on exercising your horse, allowing it to graze on pasture or spending time training your horse will diminish the risk of these behaviors.
Horses need not only physical but also mental stimulation. Lack of exercise and boredom go hand-in-hand, so they both need to be addressed to prevent windsucking or reduce the occurrence of an already existing windsucking behavior.
Pain, most notably, chronic pain such as dental pain or stomach ulcers can also trigger windsucking.
Because windsucking can temporarily alleviate the pain, the horse will continue doing it. Repeat behavior will become reinforced, leading to a hard-to-break habit.
Because both dental pain and ulcers are health issues that significantly alter their quality of life, it’s important to identify and address them.
– Genetic Predisposition
Apart from the external factors contributing to the development of windsucking in horses, it is stipulated that a genetic predisposition can also explain this behavior in horses in which all other factors have been excluded.
Horses with an excessive stimulation of the dopamine pathways will often exhibit stereotypic behaviors including windsucking.
Therefore, since windsucking can have multiple causes, it’s important to take a holistic approach to identifying the issue or issues that contribute or explain this behavior.
Is Windsucking Dangerous to a Horse?
While not immediately life-threatening, with time, windsucking can cause a specific type of colic, called epiploic foramen colic that can lead to toxins being released into the abdomen of the horse.
For long, it was believed that horses were swallowing excessive amounts of air because of windsucking and that this was associated with colic and the development of ulcers.
However, lately, based on endoscopic and fluoroscopic observations, it was concluded that only a small amount of air is inhaled, and then exhaled through the cranial esophageal sphincter into the pharynx. This also explains the grunt-like sound that the horse emits while windsucking.
If the epiploic foramen colic develops, however, surgical intervention is needed because the condition can cause part of the small intestine to become trapped and die away.
Is Windsucking Treatable?
Possibly the biggest difficulty in stopping a horse from windsucking is caused by the fact that windsucking releases endorphins (the feel-good hormone).
Endorphins reduce stress, which causes the horse to repeat the behavior any time it’s feeling depressed, bored or stressed.
This leads to a vicious circle that’s hard to break. Unfortunately, windsucking cannot be completely stopped overnight, but its occurrence can be significantly reduced.
Prevention seems to be the best treatment for windsucking. However, an existing windsucking behavior can be managed and reduced through appropriate changes in the environment, diet, exercise and socializing regimen of the horse.
How to Stop a Horse from Windsucking?
As I mentioned, stopping a horse from windsucking can be a tall order, especially with a behavior that has been reinforced over a long period of time. But you can significantly reduce it.
– Favoring natural nutrition over concentrated feeds
Pasture grazing is the best source of nutrition for horses followed closely by hay. Grains, concentrated feeds, and other treats like fruits and vegetables should only be used in small quantities and only if necessary.
A bad diet can cause gastrointestinal upset in horses, lead to ulcers and other issues that can trigger windsucking or similar behavioral patterns.
Good quality forage is essential regardless of the workload of the horse. And the diet should be formulated so that a low workload horse gets fewer grains than a high workload horse.
Because nutrition and diet in horses can trigger all sorts of problems including colic, make sure to get as much information on what you can and can’t feed your horse.
– Increased access to pasture
Horses with limited access to pasture are more likely to develop colic. But they’re also more likely to develop depression, boredom, anxiety and patternistic behaviors like pawing, crib biting, weaving or windsucking.
Access to pasture allows horses to roam freely, graze at their pleasure, and even socialize with other horses, if available.
Horses with regular pasture access are also less likely to develop anxiety and windsucking.
– Increased exercise and mental stimulation
Horses need daily exercise and mental stimulation. A horse that’s stabled for long periods without exercise or mental stimulation will become bored and anxious.
Even when stabled, horses should have toys they can use as a distraction such as stable balls that are suspended from the ceiling, treat balls or other stable toys meant to bust boredom and provide distraction to your horse.
Horses that are stabled for long periods can’t socialize as they would in a pasture or enclosure, since most of the time they can’t see each other even when stabled next to each other.
Both exercise and mental stimulation can work as a way to reduce windsucking in your horse, but it will also prevent it.
– Increased socializing
Horses are social animals by nature. In the wild, they live in herds, so isolating a horse from their peers can negatively impact their mental health and induce anxiety and stress.
Even if your horse is not socialized with other horses because it’s not possible, it should still be socialized with other, compatible animals such as goats or sheep.
Some horses can even form bonds with dogs, for example. Your own bond with your horse is not negligible either. Training, trailing, and other activities such as grooming can all be beneficial to the mental health of your horse.
Increased socializing can not only reduce the incidence of windsucking, but it’s also a way to prevent it in the first place.
– Regular health monitoring
As I mentioned, windsucking can be triggered by health issues as well, especially dental issues and gastroenterological issues.
Teeth floating every 6 months should be part of routine medical examinations as well as regular deworming, which can prevent colic, ulcers and other GI issues.
Because pain itself can trigger windsucking and other such behaviors, you should monitor the health of your horse and address any health issues in time.
– Reduce Stress
Changes in diet, socialization, and other stress factors can trigger windsucking in your horse. Sudden changes are especially stressful even if it’s something seemingly normal as socializing.
While your horse may enjoy company, new horses or new groups of horses should be introduced slowly to allow an acclimation period.
If your horse is not happy or does not feel safe in its environment, if it’s being exposed too much to the elements (rains, snow, cold, etc) or it’s being neglected, it will become more prone to odd behaviors.
All these aspects that can be used to limit the incidence of windsucking should also be given great importance as preventative measures.
Your goal as a horse-owner should be to provide the best possible conditions to your horse and offer it companionship and a good quality of life.
If you can’t find the time to properly deal with these aspects of owning a horse, you should think twice about getting one in the first place.
Besides the health implications, windsucking can also have other implications, both financially and otherwise.
Here are just some that should convince you prevent windsucking, but also manage an already developed condition:
- Windsucking can hide a health issue that should be given attention (gastric ulcer)
- It can reduce the resale value of a horse
- Horses that windsuck and crib bite can do damage in your stables
- Windsucking can lead to colic that needs surgical intervention (it’s expensive, trust me, you’d rather prevent it)
- Colic can build the wrong muscles in a horse’s neck
- Windsucking associated with cribbing can wear down the teeth of a horse.
Therefore, you should be mindful of these things when exposing your horse to an environment or situations that can trigger windsucking.
To avoid the development of windsucking and related conditions, horses need exercise, bonding with their owners, training, mental stimulation, socializing, and a healthy diet.
Grazing on pasture should be preferred over grains and concentrated feeds. Stabling should not be for very long periods so as not to trigger anxiety, boredom and stress in your horse.
And remember – windsucking isn’t a ‘stable vice’ but it’s more often a direct cause of a horse keeper’s lack of experience in horse husbandry.