How Can I Stop a Horse from Striking?

How Can I Stop a Horse from Striking?

Sometimes what looks like striking is a form of pawing behavior. Pawing is a natural behavior associated with thwarted feeding and drinking behavior.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Q. I have three horses in a 1 1/2-acre pasture with a stall for each that I use at feeding time and for shade. About six weeks ago we took on one additional horse, which we board for a friend. This horse has some bad behavior that I'm afraid will impact my horses negatively.

First, this horse strikes the ground, stall, water tank, and fence. I'm concerned he will hurt himself, destroy property, and influence my horses. What can be done to correct such rude behavior?

Second, this horse constantly wants to bite the other horses for no apparent reason. He acts very jealous when attention is given to another even though I try to spend time equally with all. The others have bites that have broken the skin. I know that bites can become infected, and I am becoming very concerned. What can I do? I'm ready to section off the pasture to separate him, or ask my friend to find some place else to board.


A. The first issue is striking the ground, stall, water tank, and fence. To figure out exactly what and maybe why the horse is doing that would require more history and probably a careful look at the behavior in context. Nonetheless, general comments about "striking" might be useful.

Sometimes what looks like striking is a form of pawing behavior. For example, some horses paw at a feed bucket with high and strong pawing motion that looks like a strike. We can be pretty sure it is intensified pawing rather than striking because we have seen it start out as more normal pawing and watched it intensify. Pawing is a natural behavior associated with thwarted feeding and drinking behavior. You see it in most horses in winter when snow or ice cover their forage or water. Horses also naturally paw (and roll) when they get into water. You might have seen this in horses that have access to natural streams or ponds. We don't really know the purpose of the pawing. We have seen some horses do the same type of pawing motion when they approach a water tank, and some will do the same toward their water bucket in a stall or paddock (see "Can't He Just Drink Out of It?").

The tendency to paw near food and water might account for the "striking" in his stall and at your water tank. If you were nearby with a feed bucket, or if the horse associates you with feeding, that could explain "striking" the fence or the ground in your presence.

The bad news is that this type of pawing behavior is not easy to eliminate. Yelling at them or trying to physically punish the behavior doesn't usually help, and could exacerbate the tendency to do it. The best strategy is to use a watering system that the horse cannot damage, get hurt on, spill, or get a leg into. The good news is that it probably won't affect your other horses' behavior. In my experience, there are those horses that paw and those that don't, and horses don't seem to "pick it up" from herdmates.

Now for the second issue--biting herdmates. There seem to be a few different types of aggression that include biting herd mates. One is called food-related aggression. This type of aggression is a result of the practice of giving highly palatable, infrequent meals. Some horses that would never fight over grass will viciously guard grain or rich hay when they are hungry. They might anticipate feeding time and guard the area where feed is dispensed. When in a private stall, they can even be aggressive toward the handler trying to feed them in a way that indicates they are urgent to get the feed out of your hands and under their control.

Another common reason horses bite others is pain-related. Horses with discomfort, even apparently low-level chronic discomfort, seem to require more "personal space," as one client recently described it. They seem to be offensively defensive. "Get away from me and don't come back."

Another type of behavior that includes biting of herd mates is sexual behavior. Does it look like this horse is sexually pursuing mares, or trying to control the mares and evict other males? Do you see him herding the mares, sniffing, nipping, sometimes grasping onto the crest of the neck as if trying to direct their movement? You mentioned that this horse seems to be jealous of attention given to other horses. Does it seem like he's trying to keep the others away from you? This also could be stallion-like behavior. You didn't say, but I am assuming this is a gelding. A fairly high percentage of geldings can retain stallion-like behavior, which can vary in strength from subtle, laid-back stallion behavior to conspicuously stallion-like aggression toward other males and herding and teasing of mares.

In scenarios like this, you always wonder if they won't settle out with time, but in this case, it's probably been long enough that if it was going to settle down, it would have by now. Without having more history and perhaps seeing the behavior, I would go with your suggestion of a separate paddock for this horse. That way other horses won't be targets of biting, and you can interact with the other horses without concern for interference or dangerous attention-seeking behavior from the new horse.

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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