Box-walking is a repetitive behaviour problem that is most commonly seen in stabled horses. It may reflect frustration of their motivation to move and exercise and can be treated and/or prevented by providing plenty of forage, turnout and social contact.
Box-walking is the name given to describe characteristic, repetitive pacing movements that a horse may make around its stable. The horse typically paces around the sides of the confined area and may seem preoccupied with this behaviour and have difficulty stopping.
Locomotory stereotypies such as weaving and box-walking are considered to reflect aspects of the horse’s natural behaviour that are being prevented by the limited stable environment. Various studies have shown that horses with repetitive movement problems are more likely to be stabled, with low forage and few opportunities for social contact.
Box-walking in particular may reflect the horse’s strong motivation to walk and graze, which is limited within a stable. It may be seen more frequently in horses that have a particularly strong desire to exercise, such as high performance/endurance horses, or those that find the stable environment stressful.
Box walking can become problematic in that the horse not only disturbs his bedding (creating characteristic pathways where they are pacing), but he expends considerable energy (leading to potential weight retention problems) and may, in extreme cases, develop asymmetrical musculature if they always walk in the same direction, giving rise to problems in performance under the saddle.
If extremely stressed he may sweat, tremble and even damage himself on the sides of the stable doors/openings in trying to escape the stable. It may be difficult to manage your horse from within the stable as they find it difficult to stop pacing.
Box-walking may also cause excessive wear of shoes or hooves, particularly if the stable floor is concreted. However, there is no real evidence that box walking reduces performance in the majority of cases and the term ‘vice’ is not very helpful.
Treatment options addressing the cause of the behaviour are more likely to result in a reduction in box-walking. This is because they will reduce the desire to perform the behaviour, although the extent to which they work will differ between individuals. Treatment options should particularly focus on increasing turnout, increasing visual and physical contact possibilities with other horses from within its stable, and increasing foraging opportunities, e.g.:
- Increasing turnout with other horses to a maximum and reducing stabled time to a minimum.
- Having other horses within the stable or opposite/next to the horse, with which it can interact fully at a social level.
- Lowering the internal walls between stables or, if there are problems with unfamiliar individuals being next to each other, placing bars or a grilled window in the separating wall (although note this means that the horses will have direct contact that may be relevant for disease control problems).
- Use of more windows or openings in the stable so that the horse has a wider view of the outside environment and choice.
- Placing a specially designed mirror surface within the stable to mimic visual access to neighbours.
- Increasing forage, i.e. hay/haylage.
- Barn housing, ie loose group of horses within a barn or yard.
- Provide feeding enrichment, e.g. a variety of forages in haynets hung around the stable or a foodball, so extending feeding time and acting as a distraction at key times for the behaviour.