Pawing Prevention for Horses

Q: My daughter's 16-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse has always hated being confined in a stall, even with a run. She has pawed and scraped her teeth on stall walls and bars. Turning her out helped, but as soon as she returned to her stall the behavior started again (after her food was gone). She now has 24/7 turnout and access to sheds and stalls at will. Even though she is not confined she still paws whenever she is impatient, primarily related to food but also at other times. Because she is an easy keeper we must monitor how much she eats. She suffered a laminitic episode recently on her dominant pawing/digging foot. We think the laminitis was a combination of too much food and concussion from compulsive pawing.

We now manage her pasture access due to her laminitic episode. She has slimmed down but the compulsive behavior remains if she can't be eating constantly. She is a smart horse and has figured out the pasture toy with small carrot pieces inside in a matter of minutes and just rolls it back and forth with one foot until it is empty. When her hay mix is gone she digs in the dirt. She weighs about 1,100 pounds and is trim. We are feeding her about 15 pounds of this mix in four to five meals a day.

I'm guessing the behavior is so ingrained there's nothing we can do to stop it except keep food in front of her at all times. Do you have any suggestions? The laminitis has made us desperate for a solution. p>

D.L. Bovi, Oregon


A: First, work with your veterinarian to ensure the mare does not have gastric ulcers. Many times pawing related to impatience, particularly with the food urgency component, appears to be caused or made worse by gastric ulcers, even if they are only mild to moderate. I would recommend having a veterinarian perform gastroscopy (an endoscopic examination of the stomach) to see first if your mare has ulcers. If she does, your veterinarian can treat them aggressively and then do follow-up gastroscopy to determine if the ulcers have healed.

Are you managing her pasture intake by giving her some time on grass and some time off grass? You might find it more beneficial for her behavior to use a grazing muzzle, which will slow down hay or grass intake while allowing continuous access to forage, hopefully without overdoing it. I like the Best Friend muzzle. It is made of rubber and nylon web strapping, and most horses adjust to it well.

What is in her "mix"? If you haven't already, I would cut out grain altogether and substitute grass hay of a quality she can eat continuously. Keep hay or grass available all the time, and if other horses nearby are being fed grain, at their mealtime just toss this mare a fresh flake of hay before giving the others their grain. Most horses on this type of grain substitute appear just as delighted with the fresh flake as a concentrated, calorie-dense, highly palatable grain meal, but are much less urgent for it.

Even though this has been going on for a long time, there's a pretty good chance your horse's pawing will diminish with possible ulcer treatment and this nutritional management plan. I have known many pawing horses that stopped altogether when gastric ulcers were treated and their diets were changed to continuous forage access with no highly palatable, calorie-dense meals.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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