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Medical Index
First Posted: July 4, 2010
Dec 17, 2012

Pawing Horse

by Debora Johnson

Have you ever noticed that your horse is pawing the ground and wonder why this behavior is being exhibited? This behavior is often misunderstood. It can have many different meanings. Pawing is not always a vice. It can be a method of communication. Just like people--horses have body language. Being able to interpret that language will help you understand your horse.

  1. Dominance - A horse will often paw when showing dominance. This is different from striking out. The horse will strike the ground with his front hoof. The leg will usually be straight and the neck will usually be arched. Sometimes they may vocalize or snort while exhibiting this behavior.
  2. Nervous - A nervous horse will often paw the ground with quick movements over and over. His neck is not arched like the dominance posture but rather held at a medium angle to the ground.
  3. Frustrated or Impatient - Both these can cause a horse to paw. The horse's posture will generally approximate that of a horse that is nervous. I often see horses that are tied to a trailer paw.
  4. Attention - Sometimes a horse will paw to get attention.
  5. Anticipation of Food - My horse, A Patchy Star, will sometimes paw when he anticipates his hay or grain. It is a gentle paw--slow and soft. He holds his head at a lower angle to the ground. Sometimes he will hold his bent leg up and just hold it in the air. It is sort of like a dog who begs at the table by sitting up or putting one paw on your leg. A Patchy also vocalizes with low, sweet nickers--very understated.
  6. Pawing in Water - When you are trail riding and you horse is in a stream, if he begins to paw the water it is often an indication that he is going to roll in the water. I suggest you move your horse out of the stream and onto the bank or you and your tack may get an unwanted bath!
  7. Pain - Pain and medical problems can also be the cause of a horse's pawing. A good example of this is a horse that has gastric ulcers will often paw.
  8. Boredom - Horses that are bored may paw. Under these circumstances it can become compulsive behavior. Do something to help with the horse's boredom such as add toys to the stall or have a companion of some sort in visual range.
  9. Social Pressures - Some horses adapt well to social change, some do not.
  10. Environmental Changes - Some horses adapt well to environmental changes and some do not.
  11. Dietary Changes - Some horses will begin to paw when they have had dietary changes. For example, horses were not meant to have highly palatable, concentrated meals. Feeding infrequent, energy-dense meals can cause all sorts of abnormal behavior and health problems. Pawing may be one of them. Horses are made to graze for many hours at a time throughout the day and night.
  12. Mimicking Behavior - Sometimes horses will mimic the behavior of other horses.

Pawing can have negative effects. If a horse paws near a fence or other object they can get caught in that object or cause trauma to their limbs or hoofs. They can also cause damage to the objects that they paw. Pawing can cause holes in the stall ground surface as well as the paddock area. Constant pawing can cause the hooves to wear improperly in an unshod horse or loosen the shoes or do damage the shoes in a shod horse. The repetitive nature of pawing takes energy. It also causes an imbalance in the muscle tone. Most horses will paw with the same leg.

For More Information:

Pawing Prevention for Horses
Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Medical Index