Pawing Problem

Q: Is there a humane method for breaking my 4-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare from pawing? She has taken this to a dangerous level by getting her leg stuck in the fence, hurting herself enough to the point of requiring surgery on a forelimb flexor tendon and an ensuing four-month recovery. During her hospitalization, all of the vets and techs commented on her incessant pawing: while eating, when bored, while being groomed, while being stroked, when alone, basically just at any given time. No solution was offered when asked. They just shrugged and said she needed to stop, but they didn't know how to break her. We (my trainer and I) have tried ignoring the behavior, slapping the pawing leg, hobbling her, making her work, lunging her, and tying her; nothing has worked. I continually read articles on vices, but no one seems to have a specific method for "unteaching" this annoying, now-dangerous behavior. I have pictures of this horse as a newborn pawing. I have had her since she was a coming 3-year-old, and she has always done this. She even comes to the fence and paws during her 24/7 pasture turnout. She paws when tied up, which I believe is out of boredom or belligerence or is an attention-seeking behavior. I tie her, and while I am getting her tack or putting it up she paws. I holler at her to quit and she does, but she usually begins again right away. I have tried turning my back on her, but she just continues pawing until she's ready to quit. My trainer hobbled her recently, and she pawed as best she could and dug quite a hole while hobbled. Other than this bad habit, she is a very sweet, compliant horse. Her mother also pawed, but her breeder tells me that she suddenly stopped this behavior for no apparent reason. My trainer and I aren't sure what to do--we are even considering a shock collar. Any help you might offer would be greatly appreciated.

via e-mail

A: First, I would recommend that you not use a shock collar or hobbles. If you have truly ignored the pawing for a couple of months, and it got her no reward, then it likely has an underlying physical cause rather than a learned habit. Also, if she did it as a young foal, then it is unlikely that she learned it. Did her dam paw at the time she was a foal? Anyway, I think it is inhumane to punish the behavior, and shock collars and hobbles in my opinion are an especially inhumane approach to modifying any horse behavior.

Second, I would recommend trying to figure out anything that could be causing your horse discomfort or stress. For example, gastric ulcers are common in horses that paw. One of the first things I recommend for horses such as yours is to have gastroscopy done at a veterinary clinic to check for ulcers. This involves passing a fiber-optic tube with a camera on the end into the stomach and examining for ulcers. The procedure takes only a few minutes. It is done with the horse standing--usually in stocks and usually sedated. If there are ulcers, you can treat them. There are some very effective medications for eliminating gastric ulcers. Pawing is likely to be reduced in horses when gastric ulcers are eliminated. When gastric ulcers are found, it's difficult to know whether the discomfort of the ulcers is the original and only cause of the pawing, or whether the ulcers and the pawing are caused by some other discomfort or stressor. It's possible that the two are unrelated. But, in any case, it's better to have no gastric ulcers.

One fun way to learn more about pawing is to videotape the horse for many hours a day. You can do this with an ordinary video camera on a tripod using the long recording mode. Some horses only paw when people are around, then they don't do it when people are not there. That can usually give you some clues as to possible triggers. Is the horse possibly anticipating feeding time whenever people are there? Is the horse anticipating some stressful event when people are around? We often videotape horses, not only to see if there are any patterns to the pawing or other undesirable behavior, but also to try to figure out whether the horse has any other signs of discomfort. In the case of your horse, you could do the video in a stall, or depending upon where she tends to paw in the pasture, you might be able to get a view that would cover her usual pawing areas.

These undesirable behaviors (known as stereotypies), in general, are tough to understand and eliminate in many cases. Diet is one big factor. Horses evolved to be eating a low-energy, high-fiber diet that keeps them busy foraging for most of their time budget. They were not meant to have highly palatable, concentrated meals. In association with feeding infrequent, energy-dense meals, all sorts of abnormal behavior and health problems are seen. In fact, these have come to be accepted as expected issues in domestic horses. However, in any case, if you can feed a horse an all-grass and hay diet that keeps them busy eating and avoid grain supplementation, many of these undesirable behaviors diminish.

Other than keeping the horse busy eating all day and night, there are hypotheses about how the grains and other concentrates and the schedule of feeding upset the natural gut physiology of the horse in ways that predispose him to physical and behavioral problems. Equine behaviorists tend to favor all-forage diets for horses whenever possible, and especially when trying to help a horse such as yours. For a horse of that breed and for trail riding, I would expect you could find a good- quality grass hay that would keep her in good body condition.

Social contact is another big factor. Many horses do just fine alone or with any group of horses, and they can handle change in social group without any problems. Others seem to do much better with a stable social group. A little donkey or pony companion that is always with the horse--in the pasture and at the cross-ties--can sometimes be helpful.

In the case of your horse, it is difficult to make specific recommendations without more information. Perhaps you can involve a veterinary equine behavior specialist in your area who can carefully review the history and the current circumstances, evaluate the available facilities, social grouping, and feeding alternatives, look at some video, and come up with recommendations. This is a young horse, and it might be well worth the effort to figure her out now. Maybe she needs a type of feeding and social environment that you might not be able to provide, but someone else could.

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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