Box walking (also known as stall walking) is a behavioral problem where a horse walks (paces) a large portion of the time it is boxed in, as opposed to the normal situation where a horse may move about a bit but is relatively quiet. It is caused by boredom, stress, or a combination of the two (the same reasons that people sometimes pace back and forth in a room). In general, if a box walker paces slowly the problem is likely boredom and general unhappiness with its environment, whereas if it paces quickly the problem is likely fear or stress. Consequently, if your horse is a box walker, you should correct this problem by providing it with an interesting environment (see mental stimulation) which is low in stress (see understanding and avoiding stress). This should be done as soon as possible for various reasons:
- Horse Well-being. Since box walking is a sign of boredom and/or stress, box walking is a sign of unhappiness (at least while boxed in), so addressing the root issues will result in a happier and more settled horse. In some cases these habit is so extreme that the horse will pace the entire time, even ignoring food. In such cases, there can be excessive weight loss and possibly damage to ligaments.
- Preventing Habit Formation. In the initial stages, box walking is a sign of a problem. However, if this is not corrected, the box walking can eventually become a permanent habit which is difficult to correct, even if the root problem of boredom or stress is addressed. Furthermore, if the boredom and stress are not corrected, other bad habits (such as cribbing or wood chewing) can also develop. By correcting the problem promptly, one can avoid the development of various bad habits.
- Cost. As a horse paces around the box, it distributes its excrement among the bedding. In many cases, this means that almost all the bedding needs to be changed each day, rather than the small amount which needs to be changed with a horse that is relatively still in its stable. This results in a higher cost in terms of increased bedding consumption and also in terms of additional cleaning time. To reduce the cost of bedding, one may wish to consider less expensive bedding types until the habit can be cured.
Aside from the general recommendations in terms of mental stimulation and stress (see links above), actions which are particularly effective are:
- Minimize box time. The more time a horse spends in a box, the more likely it is to become extremely bored and start pacing, an activity which eventually becomes so strong and automatic that it becomes a box walker. The best way to avoid this is to keep box time to a minimum and pasture time to a maximum.
- Good box neighbors. Like people, some horses get along and some don't. Try to put horses which are friendly with each other in adjacent boxes and separate ones that do not get along.
- Companions. Horses are herd animals and social interactions are very important. Consequently, one needs to provide companion animals (preferably horses, although other grazing animals are sometimes accepted as companions). The horse needs to not only see and talk with the other horse (possible if they are in adjacent fields separated by a fence) but also to groom and have physical contact with each other (need to be in the same field) and it may be beneficial if the box walls are low enough that they can easily touch noses and groom each other while boxed in.
- Food. Food provides interest and distraction for a horse. If a horse requires supplemental food (e.g. is not completely pasture fed), providing this food when it is locked in its box is probably the best time (as opposed to providing hay on the pasture). The best foods are one that are low in calories but require a lot of chewing, as this allows feeding to consume the maximum amount of time. For example, hay is much more suitable than musli for this purpose (see feed and behavior for further discussion).
Although the above are the best and most effective treatments for this problem, some horse owners have seen an improvement with the use of toys or other aids to making the box more interesting. These include mirrors (to avoid injury, install a speciality unbreakable stall mirror), various toys, feeding toys (e.g. a barrel with horse nuts, with holes that allow the horse to access only one nut a time). However, these are only partial solutions and only help with some horses.
There are a number of behaviors which are similar to box walking, with the same causes and solutions. These include: weaving, pawing or digging at the box floor, kicking the walls, fence pacing (most often occurs with small paddocks or pastures, especially if the horse does not have companions). Pawing and digging can damage box floors with are soft (e.g. wood) or result in excessive wear and possible damage to hooves when box floors are hard or abrasive (e.g. concrete). Kicking can be damaging to the box and possibly result in injury to the horse. Consequently, these activities should receive the same prompt attention as stall walking.