Pawing is an indication something is not okay in the horse’s world. It's body language expressing either 1) mental stress or 2) physical discomfort ranging from anticipation of a treat to painful ulcers. Pain, boredom, frustration, impatience, anxiety, hunger, excess energy and isolation can all be causes of pawing. If the source of mental stress and/or physical pain is not identified and remedied, pawing can eventually become a stereotypy/habit - presenting a whole new set of challenges for both horse and guardian.
Horses rarely do anything that doesn’t have a purpose. They don’t have the mental capacity to ponder and carry out acts intended to be annoying.
Read on to learn more about why horses paw, possible solutions, and how the source of pawing can be misconstrued.
Pawing with a Purpose
Pawing can be purposeful - and should be considered natural if there is a physical purpose behind it, such as:
Pawing to Communicate Physical Discomfort or Mental Stress
Non-purposeful pawing can be an indication of physical discomfort or mental stress. As a physical form of communication, pawing is - for the most part - an accepted common behavior. We often dismiss it - or find it annoying and scold our horses when they paw. Either response ignores the root cause. In fact, scolding may exacerbate the stress even more.
Horses are expressive, effective communicators if we observe and listen. They rely on us for their care. I venture to say that we are far more intuitive to their vocal expressions. You know that soft sweet nicker, desperate whinny, or pitiful low nicker that says they need help.
Physical Discomfort - Possible Root Causes
You may be surprised to learn the varied sources of pain that can be communicated by pawing - many of which are food and confinement related. Forage and movement are a really big deal to horses physically and mentally.
1. Gastric and hindgut ulcers can be incredibly painful. Equines produce gastric acid (hydrochloric acid) 24/7 in preparation for constant food uptake. The most common causes of ulcers are lack of forage, acidic pH in the intestinal tract, and stress - creating a self-perpetuating ulcer recipe. (Note forage buffers gastric acid.)
Ulcers are a slow or non-healing gastric acid burn, which would feel like hydrochloric acid being splashed on your face, OUCH! The acids can damage the tissue to the extent they create an ulcer deep enough to cause bleeding or even burn completely through the tissue.
2. Orthopedic pain. A study of 41 Standardbreds, conducted at Cornell University by Christina L. Butler and Katherine Albro Houpt, discovered the horses tended to paw more in the four hours after exercise compared to before. Many of them also tried to stand with their back legs in the hole they created.
“Getting the back legs in a lower position helps take weight off the front legs, which could be a sign of pain in those front legs, especially after a workout,” Houpt said. “Pawing in the stall appears to be a naturally learned repetitive behavior that might reflect an effort to ease pain in the limbs or abdomen, she said.
Interestingly, the researchers added, pawing occurred the least on Sunday afternoons, when the horses were not exercised. It is important to note that exercising on an empty stomach could have been a contributing factor - the study discovered that most pawing occurred four hours after exercise. Exercise on an empty stomach allows unbuffered gastric acid to slosh and bathe the stomach lining, causing discomfort.
3. Colic is another form of abdominal pain ranging from gas to impaction that causes mild to severe discomfort - and often results in pawing.
Mental Stress - Possible Root Causes
1. Boredom - Boredom is defined as: feeling weary because one is unoccupied or lacks interest in one's current activity.
To stay occupied and engage their natural instincts, horses should have the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities. In nature, their activities consist of:
Pretty simple - although it does keep them occupied the 20 to 21 hours of their wake time. Horses sleep only 3 to 4 hours in a 24-hour period and usually no longer than 20 minutes at one time. Confinement and isolation, on the other hand, can cause anxiety-related stress, vices, and boredom – especially when they suppress a horse's natural instincts. See our tips for providing natural enrichment during your horse's down time.
2. Feeding Times - Horses have an accurate internal clock driven by light that enables them to anticipate repeated activities. The closer an anticipated activity approaches the more anxious they can become, which is often expressed by pawing.
Some horses paw or are aggressive at feeding time. This is more than likely due to frustration and/or pain. They are anxious to self-medicate. Their stomach does not feel well due to the build-up of acid and/or painful gastric ulcers. Chewing activates saliva production (bicarbonate), which neutralizes gastric acid and can provide relief. Free choice forage whether loose or slow feed can eliminate feeding time!
3. Excess Energy - The more confined a horse is the less capable they are to physically expend pent up energy. Pawing may be the only physical outlet they are capable of engaging in if kept in stalls or small enclosures. Ensure your horse receives routine exercise and turnout to minimize pent up energy and prevent injury to themselves and the structure they are housed in.
Pawing: Potential Stereotypy
Pawing has the potential to become habitual developing into a stereotypy. The definition according to Wikipedia: A stereotypy is a term for a group of phenotypic behaviors that are repetitive, morphologically identical and which possess no obvious goal or function. These behaviors have been defined as ‘abnormal’ as they exhibit themselves solely to animals subjected to barren environments, scheduled or restricted feedings, social deprivation and other cases of frustration, but do not arise in ‘normal’ animals in their natural environments.
....As stereotypies develop, they become more readily elicited, so much so that they are no longer just expressed during the original circumstances and may be expressed in the absence of any apparent stress or conflict. The development of the stereotypy into a habit and the difficulty of interrupting said habit explain why it is expected that the frequency of stereotypies increases with age.... and despite making changes to provide a more enriching environment, stereotypies typically persist.
We have provided links throughout this article to direct you to comprehensive, detailed solutions according to the subject matter.
The root cause of pawing can often be easily identified such as:
While speaking to one of our awesome customers, she told me her horse paws at the pasture gate (with lots of grass) every day precisely at 4:00 pm when it’s time to be put away in the barn for the night. I asked her if the horse was fed grain when he went in his stall and she said yes. She thought he pawed because he looked forward to being in his stall. I am 99% certain he simply wanted his grain and if given the choice, he would have preferred being in the pasture.
Try to think like a horse to identify mental root causes. Horses are prey animals relying on sight, sound, smell and flight in order to detect and flee from perceived danger. If any of these are impaired, they are justified in feeling anxious. Despite domestication, it is our responsibility as guardians to provide the least stressful and most enriching environment as possible.
Pawing can be a sign of a serious physical or mental condition, or easily identified trigger. Regardless of the frequency or intensity identifying the root cause and implementing solutions early is in your horse’s best interest. After all, in nature horse's activities consist of walking and grazing, interacting with herd mates, and periods of rest. Pretty simple requirements for happier, healthier horses!
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About the Author:
Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.
Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition and digestive health articles to publications such as The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, Horse Back Magazine, The Horse's Hoof, and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.
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Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.