Everyone has dealt with pawing at one time or another. Learn some effective ways to help reduce this annoying and sometimes destructive habit.
Pawing can be an irritating habit – one that can drive you nuts. It can sometimes arise from boredom or playfulness, but can just as often be triggered by impatience, nervousness, frustration or stress.
Before you address the issue, try to determine the cause. Knowing why a horse is pawing will often determine which approach you use to deal with it. As an example, punishing a nervous horse for pawing will usually cause him to fret more, long before it actually stops the pawing.
1 Ignore the pawing
At times, it pays to just ignore the issue and let the horse work it out. If you choose this method, it is easy to employ. Tie your horse up somewhere safe and let him stand. If he likes to paw the ground, it usually does not take long for the pawing to begin. Ignore it. When his feet are quiet, go untie him.
This method works especially well for horses that are pawing for attention. Much like a child, a horse will often seek attention. If he cannot get attention by doing something good, he will often resort to doing something “bad”. It usually works too. This horse will accept scolding, mild punishment, jerks on the lead line, taps with a whip. In fact, as long as you come back to him while he is pawing, he thinks the pawing has “called” you over. Most horses learn this routine accidently in their stalls at feeding time.
During feeding time, horses often move their feet and sometimes bang the door or paw the ground just as feed is being tossed to the other horses. They are impatient for their own feed and an impatient horse is usually moving around. Naturally, if the horse is fed while this is going on, he soon learns that pawing and banging around causes feed to come over the door. Later, this is transferred to other areas, like a hitching rail.
The solution here is simple – as long as the horse is pawing or banging on a stall door, he does not get fed nor any attention. When he is quiet, you can feed him.
2 Rocking the horse
If you are grooming your horse in the cross ties or at the hitching rail, and he begins to paw, then try what I call “rocking the horse”.
Horses do not like to be off balance. When a horse is pawing, he is balancing on three legs, and it is fairly easy to upset this balance. I use one of two methods. The first is to gently push into the horse along his rib cage or shoulder until he has to take a step. It is easier to use two or three gentle shoves rather than one big one. As the horse goes off balance, he has to set the pawing leg down. I then reward him for his effort.
Method two is a rocking motion. I usually put my hand on the horse’s wither and begin to rock him back and forth. This usually takes more effort but accomplishes the same thing in setting him off balance. Once again, when the horse sets the offending leg down, I reward him with praise.
3 Food reward
The food reward is a two stage process. First, you must teach the horse about food rewards and link them to a verbal command or praise. I often use simple words, such as “good boy” or “good girl”. Timing and patience is critical for this to work.
I start by teaching the horse how to properly take a food reward (see “Treats vs. rewards”, Equine Wellness, V5I2), by making him take it from a particular position. The usual position is when his head is straight forward and in a near vertical position. If the horse reaches for the reward, I retain it until I can get him to take the reward from the position I want. This will often mean bumping the horse’s head away from my hand, and directing it to the correct position. As the horse takes the reward, I usually say “good boy” or “good girl”. Soon, I reinforce the position by saying “good boy” prior to giving the reward. By doing this, the horse begins to understand that when he hears the words “good boy” he has done something correct. As soon as the horse has learned this, you can use it to reinforce good behavior.
Situate the horse in a tie position (cross ties or hitching rail) and go about your usual business. If the horse begins to paw, wait on him to stop – when he does, immediately say “good boy” or “good girl” and reward him with the food. Naturally, the horse will first think he got the reward because he was pawing seconds before. However, there is a thing known as random reward, which says the horse will keep doing the same thing over and over, waiting for his reward.
The way to create random reward for the horse is to say “good boy” immediately, but wait longer to give the food. If the horse starts to paw before you give him the reward, just wait until he stops and try again. For example:
• While you’re brushing your horse, he paws for a minute and then quits.
• You immediately say “good boy” or “good girl” and issue the reward right away.
• You go back to brushing the horse.
• He paws again and then stops.
• You say “good boy” or “good girl” and wait five to seven seconds to issue the reward.
• Next time you might wait 15 to 20 seconds between the verbal “good boy” or “good girl” and giving the reward.
• This time frame can be continually increased before a reward is given.
• Eventually, the horse stands longer and longer and no food reward is needed.
Remember, if your horse starts to paw as you start to give him the reward, take it away and go back to what you were doing.
4 Approach and retreat
This is a simple method to use and usually requires a good book. If your horse is a confirmed “pawer”, take him to the hitching rail and tie him up. Go and sit down about 30 feet away, slightly to the side and rear of the horse. Leave him alone. More than likely he will soon begin to paw. Open your book and read. Relax yourself, and watch your horse to make sure he does not get into trouble.
When your horse stops pawing (and they all do, even if briefly), get up and start walking towards him. More than likely, he will start pawing again. Turn around and go sit down again until the pawing stops. Usually, the horse will paw longer this time because he thinks it got you up in the first place. Just wait. Read. Watch the clouds. When the horse stops, get up and start walking towards him. If he starts pawing again, turn around, but listen for him to stop. He usually will when you turn around to leave.
When he stops, turn back to him and begin approaching. As long as your horse is standing quietly, keep walking. If he starts pawing again, walk away. If he stands quietly, walk up and untie him.
It usually only takes a few sessions of approach and retreat before the horse realizes that quiet feet will bring you to him, while pawing feet send you away. Do the same thing at feeding time. Quiet feet get fed; pawing feet go hungry (or so the horse will think).
5 Tapping with a whip
While this method can work, I don’t bother with it and suggest you don’t either. Many times, it makes a horse worse or causes other anxiety issues, especially with an animal that is pawing because of nervousness. I am not saying it never works, and I am sure some people have had success with it. But it is too difficult to explain all the variables, and the degree of force to use, in an article. Unless you know of someone who can teach you exactly what to do, I’d recommend you leave this one alone.
Once learned, pawing can be a tough habit to break – but with time and consistency it is possible!
Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at HorseThink.com. To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org