What causes horses to swing backwards

Heading is one of the most common stereotypes of the horse and is shrouded in many myths. But where does this behavior disorder come from - and are there any health consequences?

A trip to the horse stable, a child holds out a handful of hay to a dark brown mare and starts to laugh. "Look here, the horse can burp," it calls out to its friends with a grin. Hanna, an eleven-year-old Hanoverian mare, is a Aufsetzkopperin. She places the upper incisors on a solid object (e.g. the box door or the edge of the crib) and cops. Unusual aids such as the back of a member of the same species or your own foreleg can also be used. And there are horses, albeit significantly less often, that head freely: they can tense their neck muscles sufficiently with a nodding head movement without any further aids; Koppen for advanced, so to speak.

When coping, the pharynx is opened by tensing the neck muscles, which causes air to flow into the esophagus and make a burping sound. Stereotypies are behaviors that deviate from normal behavior, repeat themselves over and over in the same way, and show no purpose. Since stereotypes are not observed in wild horses in their natural habitat, pecking is a phenomenon of our “civilized” horse keeping. Heading was first mentioned in the literature in 1791 - then as now, the behavioral disorder is considered a negative evaluation criterion and reduces the material value of the horse. Mag. Nina Zappl, court sworn expert for horses and equestrian sport and author of the book “Praxishandbuch Pferderecht”, says: “In most cases - depending on the agreed purpose of the horse - Koppen represents a defect in the sense of warranty law, for which the Seller is liable if the defect was already present at the time of delivery. Such a defect entitles under certain circumstances to an exchange of the horse or to a price reduction. In the case of sport horses, a reduction in value of between 20 and 60 percent is to be assumed when the horse is clipped free, and between ten and 40 percent when clipped on, depending on the precise use of the horse and the strength of the clipping. "

But what are the causes of this behavior problem?

“The exact reason why horses develop the stereotype of being coupled is not fully understood. Presumably several environmental and possibly genetic factors play a role ”, says Mag. Verena Zehetner, veterinarian in specialist training for internal medicine at the University Clinic for Horses in Vienna. The purpose of coupling is to relieve stress: the body's own happiness hormones, endorphins, are released in the process, which the horse perceives as very pleasant and calming, like an endogenous drug. (Something similar happens in our own ranks, because humans like to use their fingernails for this very purpose.) The most important triggering factors include posture and feeding errors. “Various studies have shown that husbandry and feeding management in particular have a major influence on the development of paddling and that animals can start doing it at a young age. In the case of foals, it could be shown that those animals that were suckled by the mother mare had a lower risk than peers of the same age who were otherwise watered. Regular feeding of concentrated feed is also associated with the occurrence of Koppen; on the contrary, horses that receive a large amount of roughage are less likely to exhibit this abnormal behavior. Horses that are given access to pasture and sufficient exercise are also less likely to show poppings - animals with no or limited social contact tend to do so more often, ”explains Mag. Furthermore, studies show a connection between gastritis or stomach ulcers and headache. These horses probably behave in order to achieve an analgesic effect through the release of endorphins. Last but not least, a hereditary component of coupling is also discussed. In summary, this behavioral disorder is a multifactorial problem in the interplay of stress, pain and predisposition.

Many owners of a coupling horse experience rejection in the stable: “A Kopper won't join the herd!” Other horse owners are afraid that other horses could “learn” the coupling. The myth of the "contagious" Koppens could not be scientifically confirmed to this day. It is considered unlikely that horses will develop a stereotype simply by copying them. Experience reports that several horses behave within a herd are probably due to the same (frustrating) husbandry conditions.

Apart from the psychological component, are there also physical health consequences? A clear yes and no: With the Aufsetzkoppern a so-called Koppergebiss develops - the upper incisors are heavily worn. "The incisors of Aufsetzkoppern can be changed so much that the animals show difficulties with the feed intake, especially when biting off", explains Mag. Zehetner. Furthermore, excessive koppers can lead to weight loss. “Kopper sometimes show a poor nutritional status or are considered to be poorly fed. A lack of weight gain is due on the one hand to the increased energy requirement due to the constant tension in the neck muscles and on the other hand to the high expenditure of time that is spent on tugging instead of eating. Affected horses can spend between 15 and 65 percent of the day headed, ”says Mag. Zehetner. One frequently comes across the claim that this stereotype would encourage the occurrence of stomach diseases, but it is more likely that the high stress level of the horse or too much concentrate is one of the causes of the stomach disease and that the head is the consequence and not the cause of the stomach pathology is. Mag. Zehetner on this: “A more frequent occurrence of gastric ulcers in horses that are coupling has been discussed for a long time, but this could not be proven in a recently published study.” The assumption that horses would swallow air when they are coupling, which leads to colic, has been refuted; Most of the air is released when the muscles relax. With regard to the tendency to colic, there is probably an exception: "We rarely see colic due to the displacement of the loops of the small intestine into the foramen epiploicum, but when it does, it is mostly horses that are coupling", says Mag. Zehetner.