Transportation Trio: Kicking and Pawing

Q. My 4-year-old kicks the lorry (van or truck) and paws its floor, both with company and when alone. He doesn't seem scared and loads easily. He is turned out on a regular basis as well. We need to understand what is going on with him, and most importantly, stop him from doing this!

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A. Kicking and pawing are fairly common traveling problems, and there can be a couple of different possible causes. Probably the most common scenario is that these behaviors develop as a simple behavioral problem. Many horses seem to do better when the vehicle is moving than when it is standing still, and they are naturally a bit anxious to get moving or to get out whenever the vehicle is stopped.

Pawing is a natural response of horses in such thwarted-goal situations. If the horse paws, then the vehicle moves again, the pawing is rewarded. So not only might the pawing be truly the result of frustration, the horse can in effect learn to paw each time the rig stops "to get the rig going" again. If the vehicle is slow to respond, the frustration might lead to a stomp or two, or even a kick. Eventually something happens; the rig moves or the horse is unloaded. In effect, every time the horse kicks, stomps, or paws, something better happens. So it's very hard to change the behavior.

Another, probably less common scenario, involves horses in some physical discomfort that is exacerbated by the work of balancing during transportation. The horse might kick out, paw, or stomp in response to discomfort. This can happen when the vehicle is moving and when it is stopped.

To figure out why your horse is pawing and kicking, we'd have to assess when the kicking and pawing occur and do some behavioral diagnostics. Is the pawing and kicking only when the vehicle is moving or only when it is stopped? It would be good to see how this horse does when tied somewhere else, not in a transporter. Also, if it turns out that your horse only kicks or paws when the lorry is stopped, it would be good to see what happens when the horse is kept in the lorry for a long time with no movement. If the kicking and pawing are just a learned behavior, then it should eventually stop if it isn't "rewarded" with movement.

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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