Windsucking is an oral stereotypic behavior performed by horses. It is closely related to cribbing, but they are distinct behaviors.

Horses windsuck by arching their necks and using their mouth to suck air into the cranial esophagus. The horse will then blow the air back out of the mouth while making a grunting sound. [2]

Horses may begin windsucking in response to stress, boredom, or gastrointestinal discomfort. While the behavior may not be problematic to begin with, it can develop over time into a nearly irreversible habit with negative consequences for health and well-being.

If your horse exhibits signs of windsucking, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian about potential causes and treatment options.

Windsucking in Horses

Windsucking is characterized by a horse repeatedly arching its neck and contracting its abdominal muscles to suck in air, resulting in a gulping motion. The horse will then grunts as the air is expelled.

Some horses perform the behaviour only when a stressful situation or stimulus arises. Other horses may spend many hours of their day windsucking,

The stereotypy is most commonly expressed in a barn or stall, but can also be expressed when turned out in a pasture. [1]

Horses that windsuck are often anxious or stressed, and this can make them difficult to handle. They may exhibit other stereotypic behaviors, such as cribbing, wood chewing or stall weaving.

Windsucking can also make it difficult for horses to concentrate on tasks, such as training or racing. It can also interfere with normal eating behaviours and result in weight loss.

Working with a veterinarian or equine behaviorist can help you develop a plan to stop your horse from windsucking.

Several products are advertised to help deter horses from windsucking, such as wraps, collars, and muzzles. Behavior modification training may also be necessary to help your horse break the habit.

Whatever method you choose, it’s important to address the problem as soon as possible to prevent this behavior from becoming permanent and to minimize adverse effects on the horse’s health.

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Windsucking vs. Cribbing

Windsucking closely resembles crib-biting or cribbing; both behaviours involve sucking in air and the actions are often performed for the same reasons.

The difference is that horses that crib bite will grasp an object between their teeth as they suck in air.

A consequence that cribbers face but windsucking horses do not is tooth wear and dental issues. When horses crib, the incisors are worn down more quickly.

This can make chewing more difficult and ultimately affect the horse’s feed intake and body condition.

An estimated 2.4-4% of horses windsuck and/or crib. [3][4] Cribbing is more common than windsucking and is better understood by researchers. [5]

Much of the research on windsucking and cribbing groups these behaviours together because of their similarities. [3][4]

Windsucking vs. Aerophagia

Windsucking is also similar to aerophagia, with one key difference. Aerophagia is a medical condition in which horses gulp large amounts of air, resulting in stomach distention and discomfort.

When aerophagia is performed, the horse swallows the air that it gulps. Horses do not swallow air when windsucking or cribbing. [6]

Stereotypies

Windsucking is an example of an oral stereotypic behaviour. A stereotypy is a repetitive behaviour that does not vary and serves no clear function. [7]

Stereotypies begin as stress-coping mechanisms. The behaviours may continue in response to stress or simply as a habit the horse has learned.

Some horses perform stereotypies at certain times of day, such as before or after meals, or at random times. [8][9]

Oral stereotypies include:

  • Windsucking
  • Cribbing
  • Wood-chewing
  • Flank-biting

 

Locomotory stereotypies include:

  • Weaving
  • Box-walking
  • Fence-pacing
  • Pawing
  • Wall-kicking
  • Head-bobbing

 

Stereotypies usually cause the horse to become unthrifty because they are spending extra energy performing the behaviour. If the horse does not consume more calories to compensate, they can experience weight loss. [9]

Factors that commonly cause horses to develop stereotypies are isolation from other horses, confinement that restricts activity, and a diet that does not support their nutritional and physiological needs. [10]

Why Does my Horse Windsuck?

There is extensive research investigating the causes of cribbing, but fewer studies have looked at factors that contribute to windsucking.

However, because the behaviours are nearly identical, many of the factors that cause cribbing are also likely responsible for windsucking.

Cribbing is a coping mechanism that helps horses alleviate stress. Signs of stress in horses include an increased heart rate and increased nociceptive threshold (perception of discomfort).

After cribbing, the horse exhibits physiological changes that indicate relief from stress, including a lower heart rate and nociceptive threshold. Similar physiological changes are believed to occur in windsucking horses. [11]

Factors that may cause horses to begin windsucking or cribbing include: [3][4][12][13][14][15]

  • Social isolation
  • Boredom, stress, or frustration
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Low forage/high concentrate diet
  • Personality
  • Weaning methods
  • Housing and management
  • Breed, age, and sex

Social Isolation

Horses are herd animals that rely on one another for protection, social interaction and mutual grooming. Isolation from other horses can lead to boredom and frustration.

The stress of social isolation can cause the horse to perform stereotypies such as windsucking, pacing, weaving, or cribbing. [4][15][16]

Genetic Predisposition

If you have a broodmare that windsucks, some of her foals may eventually begin to windsuck as well. Windsucking is partially influenced by genetic traits.

Research shows that up to 36% of horses in families with certain genes will windsuck or crib. [3]

Equine caregivers often believe that horses learn to windsuck from seeing other horses do it. However, there is no evidence of this.

Researchers now believe that the correlation in windsucking behaviour among horses housed together is better explained by genetic relation of the horses or because the horses were managed in the same stress-inducing environment. [3][12]

Diet

Feeding your horse a diet high in concentrates (grains or complete feeds) and low in forage increases the horse’s risk of hindgut acidosis and can contribute to anxiety. This in turn increases their risk of windsucking.

Horses in the wild graze for 60-70% of the day, consuming large quantities of low-calorie forage while travelling many miles per day.

In domestic management settings, it is common for horses to be fed a high-grain diet with limited forage and to receive one to two large meals per day. [16] The meals can be consumed quickly, and the horse may go long periods with an empty stomach between feedings.

Some domestic horses also have limited turnout and spend most of their time in stall confinement. This inhibits the expression of natural foraging behaviours.

When forage is limited, horses spend much less time grazing and chewing, which may leave them bored or stressed. Horses can begin windsucking to alleviate boredom. [16]

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