Ask the Vet: Behavior

Written by Sid Gustafson, DVM, Bozeman, MT

Question: How can I train my horse to quit pawing? Answer: Horses paw unwelcomely for a variety of reasons, and many have been inadvertently trained to paw by their guardians. Rather than being trained not to paw, most horses have to be un-trained. 

Pawing to be fed: Pawing is a natural behavior observed frequently in wild horses. Horses paw through snow to reach forage. When pawing becomes an unwelcome behavior associated with stabling, usually humans have rewarded, reinforced, and taught the unwelcome pawing behavior. The most common example is feeding hungry stabled horses.

Stabled horses should seldom be without forage to chew and graze, nor should they become hungry or empty-stomached for over a few hours at most. In general, horses should never be without a bite of appropriate forage, mind you all. If your horses are too heavy, they need more appropriate locomotion and more appropriate, less carbohydrate-rich forage—not deprivations of both locomotion and forage, please, as multiple deprivations lead to stereotypies such as cribbing and weaving. Horses require abundant friends, forge, and locomotion to maintain behavior health and trainability.

First, let’s review how the horses can become enamored with pawing.


How to teach forage-deprived horses to paw for hay: The guardian arrives to feed forage-deprived horses, who have long ago run out of appropriate forage to chew and digest. The hungry horses instinctively paw in anticipation of being fed. Pawing is an “I-am-hungry” behavior, as well as a behavior that arises from extended periods of deprived locomotion. When horses are not allowed to move most all of the time, they develop methods to move which suffice their need to move, but which are unwelcome, such as pawing and weaving.

The guardian rewards the pawing by feeding the hungry pawing horses, thus teaching the horses a specific behavior to achieve a specific result. They have been taught to paw to be fed. In fact, the horses have trained the human to feed them on cue. The horses paw, the human feeds them. Repeatedly rewarding the pawing entrenches the pawing behavior in the horse. The solution: The horses should never have run out of appropriate forage and become unreasonably hungry in the first place. Feeding times should not be preceded by long periods of having run out of feed. Foraging should not be deprived for more than a few hours at a time, as is the situation in natural settings. Horses are not inclined to schedules. During their evolution, schedules resulted in predation.

The solution is to avoid unwelcome pawing in the stable is to seldom, if ever, allow the horses to run out of appropriate forage, which is to say not to let the horses become unreasonably hungry, ever. A horse’s stomach is meant to always have a small amount of forage. Horses are trickle feeders. Deprivations of appropriate 24/7 forging create a variety of unwelcome behaviors, cribbing and gastric ulceration foremost among them.

Unwelcome pawing while being tacked, or tied up. Most of these horses are locomotion-deprived stable horses. Horses in natural settings move up to 80% of the time. This movement is essential to their digestion and metabolism. When horses are not allowed to freely move all the time their body calls for movement and they develop ways to move within their restricted circumstances. They paw, they weave, they stall walk, and some stall-run. Stabled horses require miles of daily walking. If they do not get it, some paw unwelcomely, as their legs need to move. Always make sure your stabled horse is allowed to walk, run, and play for a while after coming out of the stall before you tie him up to tack or ride, please. If he does not get his long awaited exercise at liberty, he will take the exercise in the form of pawing while being restrained (or sometimes will get the fill of his needed locomotion by bucking while being ridden).

When horses come out of stall after long periods of deprived locomotion, the first thing they need is abundant movement. Walk your stalled horse abundantly before anything else is attempted after a long period of being stalled if it is a willing, pleasant partnership you seek with your horses. This strategy often eliminates unwelcome pawing. When horses are pawing excessively, the message is often that they have not been getting enough daily movement.

Unwelcome pawing before or while being ridden: Riding has to be a good and comfortable deal for the horse. If riding is not a good deal for the horse, or riding or saddling becomes confusing or uncomfortable, horses will paw in anticipation of future discomfort before being ridden. The solution is to make riding (and stabling) a good and fulfilling endeavor for the horse.

Never is an unwelcome behavior the horse’s fault. All equine behaviors are a result of the genetics, environment, and management, all of which mankind has total control.

Sid Gustafson, DVM, Bozeman, MT