Working with the horse that paws!
I get this question a lot! "My horse tries to dig to China when he's in the cross ties, or in his stall before feeding time. What can I do?"
When horses paw their hooves in the stalls or cross ties, two things come to mind for me. One, I’m going to go insane. And two, that horse is doing a good job of training humans. What do I mean by that? I once was at a barn that had a chronic pawing and kicking horse in his stall. The owner’s request was that every time he started up with his “game”, we should give him some hay to “deter” the behavior. Seriously??? It was so bad that a muck tub of treats and hay was kept outside of his door. He would paw or kick, then we were required to run over and feed him to distract him. Clearly we were only reinforcing this behavior!
This got me thinking about my own horse. He was *usually* a super star in the cross ties, until we got back from a ride. During the untacking process, he would paw and stomp and ask for his carrot reward for a job well done. If I went into the tack room, which he could see the door to, I could hear him start pawing. I would immediately come out and approach him, sometimes giving him a verbal reprimand or shaking the cross tie rope as if to say, knock it off. So he would stop for a second, I would go finish what I was doing, and it would start again.
I began to notice in the barn that every time any horse pawed, there was someone there to say “no” or “stop” or even just walk up to the horse. Same goes for feeding time - some of the horses would learn that if they pawed, they would (still) get fed, so the behavior was being reinforced. As much as the Grooms would say “no” or “knock it off”, they were saying those words as they opened the stall door and tossed the hay in.
Now I was really thinking. And my horse had started this pre-feeding behavior. Not happy. So, time to hit the drawing board. I decided to experiment. Against my “better judgement” at the time, I decided that every time my horse pawed in the cross ties, I would turn my back, walk away, and disappear around a corner so he could not see me. When he stopped pawing, I would come back to him. If he started pawing as I approached him, I would turn and leave again.
This was hard to do in a busy barn with Grooms and clients everywhere, so I had to ask/beg everyone to play along and not bother him if he pawed. I would be the only one to disappear. The first few days I tried this I waited until the barn was essentially empty to practice this. After about three days, five minutes at a time about twice a day, the pawing was gone. I still catch his shoulder muscles twitching, and this foot wanting to leave the ground, which really makes me laugh….. He will occasionally forget and throw in a paw, and I still drop whatever I am doing and walk away until I’m out of sight.
For his pawing at meal time behavior, I needed to really teach him the “new way”, so for about a week I was the only one that fed him, so that there was no confusion with other Grooms about how things would go. This was highly inconvenient, but I was worried how it his behavior could escalate.
This started with me needing to teach him an alternative to pawing for his meals, so I used some tools I already had in place. He already knew how to back, move left, move right, step forward, move shoulders, move haunches and stop from verbal and hand signals, at liberty and with a halter. So I started with the most simple thing ever. He needed to stand in one particular corner with his head pointed into the wall before I would feed him. So I would use his signals to position him, have him stop, and then feed. About 3 days later, there was no need for me to use any signals. Now I could instruct everyone else how to feed him, and the instructions were easy. He stands there, or you keep walking and don’t feed him. This is a language he understands!
There is certainly no situation that works for everyone in terms of how to deter pawing behavior. This worked for me, and changed the role of “trainer” and “trainee” back into proper balance.
Our friend Kassie from A-Schuerr-Thing Horse Training adds another angle that may apply for you and your horse. Here’s what Kassie teaches us:
“Pawing is usually a result of anxiety, either from leaving the pen and herd or having too much energy and being ready to work or play. I will tie my horse to a “post of knowledge” with a swivel on the top that allows the horse to move their feet around the post. Usually if a horse can move their feet, their flee response is decreased and anxiety is reduced.
I will leave them tied for 4-6 hours at a time offering water every 3-4 hours. If they are not working, they are not in need of a drink as often as when they are working. My horses learn that even though they are tied with the tack on, I may come back and work with them again. Tied up doesn’t mean they are done for the day and they learn to conserve their energy, they are all seen sleeping at the posts. Very rarely do my horses pull back tied, paw or create enough energy to catch my attention that is like they are saying “pick me to work next”.”
Remember, what works for you may be different than what works for your friend. However, the most important factors when addressing a behavior in your horse is to be consistent, every single time. Horses love to test the pecking order, and believe it or not, ten years from now they will still be testing us with their same tricks.