Pawing horses can be more than bothersome- It’s one of those horse behaviors that can be especially frustrating!
There are cases when pawing is a result of playfulness or boredom, but it may also mean your horse feels impatient, nervous, frustrated, or stressed. Understanding why your horse is pawing will help you understand how to deal with the situation. If you punish a nervous horse, it will only make your horse even more nervous and scared.
There are many ways to solve horse pawing. Here are a few of my favorite approaches to dealing with pawing that are supported by modern research in effective horse training. 1
Ignoring the Behavior (i.e. Not Rewarding)
Sometimes it’s best to not pay attention to the issue. Choosing this route is the easiest. You simply have to tie your horse in a safe area and just let them stand. If your horse has a habit of pawing the ground, the pawing should start soon. When it does, you simply have to ignore it.
This way is best for horses that just want attention. Just like kids, horses like seeking attention. If they can’t get your attention with good actions, they’ll start doing bad things. And it typically works!
When you go back to your hose to correct its pawing- even with light punishments- horses may see it as a reward. As long as you give attention to your horse while he’s still pawing, he will think that the act is working.
Food and Feed-Time Related Pawing
Most of the time, horses learn this habit during feeding time in their stalls.
When it’s feeding time, pawing horses may paw, bang on the door, and stomp on the ground, when the food is being distributed to the barn. They’re displaying signs of impatience for their food- and since the food tends to eventually come- they often think it worked! Your horse will think that his pawing and banging will result in feed delivered to him. This is also manifested in other areas like a hitching rail, where pawing might convince the horse you’ll saddle up and go sooner.
There’s a simple solution to this: When they’re pawing or banging on the door, don’t give them their feed and don’t give them any attention. Once their feet are silent, you can proceed to feed them or untie them from the hitching rail.
Rocking Your Horse
If you’re training your horse in the cross ties or hitching rail and he starts to paw, then you can employ what’s called “rocking your horse.” Horses dislike being off balance. When they’re pawing, they’re attempting to balance with three legs, and it’s easy to get them off balance.
I usually use either of these methods:
- The first pawing correct method is the rocking motion. I normally put my hand on my horse’s withers and start to rock back and forth. It normally requires more effort but it achieves the same results in putting the horses off balance. Whenever they put the offending foot and leg down, I give them a reward or praise them.
- The second option is by pushing gently into the horse near his rib cage or shoulder up until he needs to take a step. It’s simpler to use a couple of gentle pushes than one strong one. When your horse loses his balance, he’ll have to set his pawing leg down. That’s the moment to reward your horse.
Food as a Reward
This is a process with two stages:
First, you have to teach your horse about food rewards and connect them to verbal praise. I usually use simple words like “good job,” or “good boy/girl.” It’s important to have timing and patience for this technique to work.
- Teach a neutral body position. I begin by training the horse how to correctly receive a food reward with the right position. The normal position is to have your horse take it when his head is in a straightforward or almost vertical position. If your horse reaches towards the reward, I keep it until I can have him get the reward from an ideal position. This sometimes means bumping your horse’s head away from your hand and instructing the horse’s head to the right position.
- Orient them to verbal praise. As your horse receives the reward, again, give him praise like “good job” or “good boy/girl.” I can reinforce the ideal position by telling him “good boy” before giving the reward. Doing this will make the horse understand that he’s done something right when he hears the praise. When the horse has understood this, you can use it as a tool to teach good behavior.
- Wait for the desired behavior to occur, then reward. Place your horse in a cross ties or hitching rail position and go about your normal routine. If your horse starts to paw, wait for them to stop. Once they do, say “good boy/girl” right away and give them a food reward.
- Use Random Rewards. As expected, your horse will think they got the reward after they pawed. But there’s something called a random reward, which can reinforce you doing the same thing again and again waiting for a reward. The way to reinforce a random reward for your horse is by saying “good boy” right away, but wait a little longer to provide a reward. When your horse is pawing before you reward them, wait for them to stop to try again.
- Practice your timing. The timing for this is key. Your horse will paw for a minute and then stop. When your horse stops, right away say “good boy/girl” and then give them a reward immediately.
- Use Everyday interaction for training. When your horse paws and then stops pawing, you say “good boy/girl” and then wait a couple of seconds to give a reward. You can extend it up to 15-20 seconds before giving the reward. Before long, you can increase the time frame before you give a reward. Then your horse will stand longer and you won’t need a food reward.
Just remember to take away the reward when your horse paws and go about your business. You will need a lot of patience for this method for dealing with horses that paw!
Approaching and Retreating
This is an easy technique to use and works great with my people-oriented curly horses.
- Tie. If your horse paws a lot, tie him up to a hitching rail. Move away and sit about 30 feet away from the horse (a little to his rear) and leave him alone.
- Wait. It’s likely your horse will paw again. Wait a while. Take your time. You can even read a book. Relax and stay near by to make sure your horse won’t get into trouble.
- Return when pawing stops. When your horse isn’t pawing anymore, start walking towards him.
- Leave when pawing starts. Your horse is likely to start pawing again. When this happens, turn around and wait until he stops pawing.
- Know when to quit. Once you get a long stretch of the horse standing quietly, untie them and call it a day, or graze them on a lead line for a few minutes.
This process takes a lot of patience. You can read a good horse book or play on your phone while you wait for your horse to stop pawing. When your horse is just standing quietly, this is the time you approach him. If they start to paw again, turn around.
It will take a couple of sessions for your horse to make the connection between quiet feet and your approach, but horses learn quickly.
Avoiding Negative Training
While punishment methods were used to train horses in the past, today we know that horses learn faster and show lower stress levels when they are trained through positive reinforcement. 2Although these reward-based methods for dealing with horses who paw take a little longer, they actually strengthen the relationship between you and your horse.
Research sources used for this article:
- Fox, A. E., & Belding, D. L. (2015). Reducing pawing in horses using positive reinforcement. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48(4), 936-940.
- McLean, A. N., & Christensen, J. W. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 190, 18-27.