I'm Knocking, But Don't Answer!

Q: My little mare is about to be evicted from a barn for what I would call "door-banging on steroids." Whenever in her stall, she constantly stands at the door and paws, knocking her hoof or knee against the door. This nearly rattles the door off its hinges and makes a huge noise that is very annoying to everyone. It's even more annoying because she knows she is not supposed to do it. If you approach the door and yell at her, or go open the door a bit, she stops, but only for a little while. Now, no matter how much you yell at her, it just seems to get worse. A few seconds later she is right at it again. Lately the banging is not only getting more constant, she is putting more force into it. The door latch is now bent and a board has split out on the door. The only time we can get her to stop the banging for more than a few seconds is when she is eating grain in the other corner, so sometimes when it is driving everyone crazy, or people are worried that she will break down the door, they give her some grain to distract her. As soon as she finishes the grain she is back at the door.

So, I need to do something. The only other option to stay at this barn is to leave her outside in the paddock where there is a run-in shed. But she loves coming inside. She is the first at the gate and won't let anyone in until she goes first.

via e-mail

A: Each year at our clinic we get one or more door-bangers, usually large ponies and draft breeds. In recent years we have been able to reliably eliminate the problem quite easily within a few days. So I have learned that if everyone in the barn un-derstands how this behavior starts, why it is getting worse, and what it takes to stop it, it's an easy fix. Usually, it stops alto-gether in less than a week, or it greatly reduces in frequency and intensity. I can tell you exactly what we do. But first let me explain why horses get into this behavior and why it often just keeps getting worse over time, along with the usual steps people take to try to stop it.

The bottom line is that door-banging is one of those learned behaviors that is inadvertently taught as a result of how people react to the horse's behavior. Now you might think that yelling at a horse would be punishment that should eliminate the behavior, but just as with children, attention--even what we think is aversive attention--is often better than none at all. It actually increases the frequency of the behavior rather than decreasing it, so by definition it is reinforcement of the behavior rather than punishment. This is especially the case for a confined animal whose whole existence depends on people.

And since people approaching a stall door is associated with feeding or turnout or exercise, or perhaps it's just interesting when in a confined environment, the simple approach of a person becomes a positive event for most stalled horses. Horses can easily learn that anything, such as door banging, vocalizing, or pawing, that gets the attention of people will likely cause people to approach the stall. In the case of your mare, people are now intermittently delivering a big reward for the banging by giving grain now and then.

Grain is a huge reward for horses, and they are willing to work long and hard to get it. The fact that the grain reinforcement is intermittent makes the horse work even longer and harder on the chance that it will get grain. While your interpretation is that your mare knows she is not supposed to bang on the door, I would argue just the opposite, that your mare clearly understands what she has been taught, that banging leads to attention and to feeding.

All it takes for the banging to stop is for you to now teach her that banging no longer leads to attention or feeding. It is a law of learning that if a behavior has no benefit, it will extinguish. And in the case of door-banging, or pawing, there is no better example of how great it works to just ignore it and certainly never reinforce it.

This is exactly what we do at our clinic:

  • Explain to everyone who comes to the barn that this is a learned behavior that has to be unlearned. All they have to do to help is to do nothing--just completely ignore the banging. No shouting and no approaching the stall when banging is occurring. In fact, go farther away if possible. Be sure that everyone knows and agrees to help you by doing nothing. Don't forget the farrier, veterinarian, and any visitors. It is almost instinct for anyone, but especially horse people, to react and try to correct rather than to ignore such behavior.
  • Cover the grill of the door so that the horse cannot see people at the door. We use a piece of cardboard and put a sign on it to remind people to ignore the banging and go away from the stall rather than approach the stall whenever the horse is banging. Last summer a vet student doing the behavior rotation made some cute little signs with a cartoon of a horse that said, "I'm a knocking, but please don't you answer."
  • Feed the horse only when she is not banging. If you can cut out grain meals altogether and put the horse on all hay in a back corner of the stall, that is even better. It draws the horse's focus away from the door and eating hay will occupy much more of her time.

The greatest difficulty we have in a barn where many people work, including new rotating students all the time, is getting everyone informed and happily on board and giving up their own habit of responding and inadvertently reinforcing the banging. In this environment most people understand and buy into behavior modification, but some horse people totally reject this approach and there are sometimes some tense moments. Once people see how effective it is to just ignore the behavior, things go much better. It is really human behavior that has to change, so it is worth taking the effort to make it as happy a project for everyone as possible.

Plan B, outside with grass or hay available most of the time, actually sounds like a good housing alternative for your mare. So if you get kicked out of the stall, I think outdoors would be ideal. Just because she is urgent to come inside would not convince me that she is happier or better off inside than outside. The reason most horses are urgent to come inside is the grain meal they usually get soon after coming in. Infrequent concentrated meals are not normal for horses. They are meant to be foraging almost continuously. When fed grain meals on a human schedule, some horses develop abnormal "food urgency" or "food aggressiveness" behaviors, including things like door banging and urgency at the gate. When you switch them back to a more normal horse diet of all forage, those undesirable behaviors often go away.

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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