Most horses will paw occasionally. However, excessive pawing is considered a vice and is a common problem. It is very frequent in young horses who have not been tied enough to learn to be still. It is common in thoroughbreds who seem to exhibit it more than other breeds – and in conjunction with cribbing. It is destructive. A horse can dig quite a hole in unprotected ground. They can bang barn boards, stall doors, gates, and other fixtures.
It is dangerous to the handler. The colt in the video below would get quite agitated and paw with great gusto. Getting hit with a pawing hoof could have been quite painful or worse.
It is dangerous to the horse. A pawing horse can get his feet tangled in gates or any number of other fixtures in his environment.
It is irritating. A pawing horse is not paying any attention to what is going on around him.
Pawing is it’s own reward. It offers a cathartic release of tension and feels good. (Maybe a little like someone who chews gum furiously when they are nervous or wiggles his feet constantly while watching t.v.) If you watch closely, you will see the young stallion in this video open his mouth and yawn occasionally. It is a sign that he is nervous enough to be clenching his jaw and neck muscles. The “yawning” is to release the jaw muscle – an effort at relaxing all of that tension.
Pawing is most often exhibited when a horse is tied or in some way restrained or when a horse is eating.
Pawing while eating is hard to discourage. Perhaps it comes from a horse’s instinct to dig through snow or vegetation to find food in scarce environments. But whatever the cause, he dumps his food, gets his feet tangled in food bins or equipment and generally causes irritating and/or dangerous situations. We had to take the food bin away from one of the thoroughbreds on the ranch because he insisted on pawing at his food (in anticipation and during eating) and got himself cast between the bin and the fence and was unable to return to his feet without assistance. It is best to feed this type of horse with a fence-mounted bin or a bowl on the ground.
I have tried a couple of different approaches to pawing while tied.
I tried sitting near him and reacting with my handy stick, banging his leg each time he started the pawing. My timing was very good, but this procedure did not produce the results I wanted. Negative reinforcement just didn’t seem to work. And I was afraid it would produce a jumpy horse – over-sensitize him to the stick.
I tried tying him, leaving him slowly, then turning to clap my hands and shout when the pawing started, thus both startling him and distracting him like an old mare who disciplines another horse. I did this a couple of times for a horse who was very perceptive and smart. The goal was to point out the PRECISE behavior I disliked. I believe it was somewhat effective, but not the end of the training.
The best approach seemed to be to leave the horse standing for longer and longer periods of time in a safe environment until (in most cases) the behavior eventually goes away. It shows him that he is not abandoned. His handler will return. And it allows enough time for him to figure out that pawing produced no positive results. It’s tiring and non-productive. This procedure can take little time or a very long time, depending on the horse. However, it seems to be effective in most cases. See Talk to the Post
There are a couple of things to mention about tying him:
1. He should already understand tying. If he is too raw at being restrained that he throws himself backward or is panicky, it is not time to work on pawing. You have other problems and need to go back to earlier lessons.
2. He should never be left unattended. Stay in his vicinity so that you are available in an emergency but not interacting with him at all.
3. He should be tied at a place and height where he can’t do damage to you, himself or his environment.
4. He should be tied in the same spot each time until he is no longer pawing in that area. Then you should generalize the behavior by moving him to other tie-out locations until he gives it up wherever he is.
5. He gets NO attention (positive or negative) while he is pawing. Do your chores, work around his area, but do not talk to him or communicate in any way unless he is standing calmly.
Because a pawing horse has some type of nervous agitation, you may find that by discouraging pawing, you see another vice take its place. The thoroughbred mentioned above began cribbing at the tie-area when his pawing was discouraged. In most cases, cribbing is the more dangerous habit, so his owner began to look for another solution.
This type of horse needs some kind of activity that will release the tension he feels when restrained. We don’t have an answer yet. His owner is experimenting with clicker training to substitute “trick pawing” for neurotic pawing. I also wonder if having a ball or other engaging toy tied at the tack area might distract him. These solutions are still in the experimental stage.