Written by: Antonia J.Z. Henderson, Ph.D.

Equine psychologist Antonia J.Z. Henderson, Ph.D. explains how to stop pawing.

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If you are a regular reader of my articles you may believe that I have only one insight to offer for all equine behaviour problems. And…you may be right. Almost ALL behavioural issues can be solved by allowing horses to live as they were evolutionarily designed to do. Increasing time outside of the stall (eliminating stalls altogether would be my vote), allowing for more social interaction, increasing foraging time and reducing concentrates will resolve many of the undesirable behaviours we see in today’s pleasure and sport horses. That said, there is certainly more sleuthing we can do to discover the source of your horse’s pawing and how you might stop it.

Gastric ulcers are a common cause of pawing, kicking or flank biting, and since ulcers are so ubiquitous in sport horses (rates run from 50 per cent to 90 per cent) this is a good place to start. Ulcers may flare up around feeding (where we commonly see increased pawing) because anticipation of being fed increases gastric flow and exacerbates the horse’s discomfort. While not a long-term solution, trying your horse on a short course of ulcer medication offers an inexpensive and non-invasive ulcer diagnostic. If medication improves the situation, ulcers are probably the culprit.

Pawing may also be related to pain in the joints or limbs. Katherine Houpt and Christina Butler of Cornell University found pawing behaviour in 58 per cent of 41 Standardbred horses. Horses pawed more intensely following exercise, did not paw on days they were not worked and often stood with their hind legs in the hole they had created in an attempt to take weight off the front legs – all suggesting that the pawing was related to exercise-induced pain.

It may also be possible that your horse paws because someone has inadvertently taught him to do so. Frustration behaviours such as pawing, circling, head tossing or kicking are often evident when a horse is thwarted in a goal that cannot be satisfied. Horses anticipate feeding by the reliable cues that precipitate it (arrival of a particular person, opening of feed bins, rustling of buckets, etc.). Pawing, in particular, may be an adaptive response to food-related frustration as horses naturally paw to reach food that is less accessible, such as in overgrowth or under snow. According to the laws of positive reinforcement, whatever behaviour the horse is engaged in immediately preceding the rewarding meal, will reliably reoccur. Often, we quickly feed the most volatile horses and thus inadvertently confirm that their obnoxious behaviour is actually required for future feedings. Horses that paw when standing in the cross-ties may have similarly learned that pawing brings the owner back to them with grooming and attention. (Pawing while actually being groomed, however, may be indicative of ulcer discomfort).

Through progressive steps of withholding the meal (or attention in the case of the cross-tied horse) until he is quiet, you can retrain your horse that quiet standing is what brings the desired reward. Begin with asking for only a second or two of quiet before rewarding him. Gradually build this duration, always rewarding the behaviour you want, rather than the behaviour you are trying to extinguish. Timing is everything!

Ultimately, all horses will benefit from an analysis and enrichment of their current environment. Although pasture turn out is the gold standard, in some management circumstances it is not possible. However, horses will make-do with increased turn out, accompanied with more munching time (think less delicious hay, more of it, and making your horse work harder to get it). Where energy requirements are modest, reduce or eliminate concentrates. Equine behaviourist Sue McDonnell comments “pawing … and other temperament problems are often solved by eliminating those candy-bar type meals and returning a horse to an all-forage diet.”

Finally, provide more opportunities for socialization. Where space limitations or the stable culture is not conducive to small group turn out, horses still benefit from nose-to-nose time. Removing electric wire between enclosures, lowering stall walls or installing socialization bars between neighbours, will all make for a healthier, happier horse that has a better shot at being the amazing equine partner you want him to be.

Antonia J.Z. Henderson, a psychology professor at Vancouver’s Langara College and equine psychologist, researches, teaches, consults and writes about human/animal relationships. She has owned, bred, imported and successfully competed her own horses in hunter/jumper and dressage, and has managed and taught at a number of hunter/jumper facilities.