Working with the horse that paws!
When horses paw their hooves in the stalls or cross ties, two things come to mind for me. One, I’m going to go insane. And two, that horse is doing a good job of training humans. Time to flip the narrative if you want to work with the horse that paws.
Horses training humans
- What do I mean by that? I once was at a barn that had a chronic pawing and kicking horse in his stall. The owner’s request was that every time he started up with his “game”, we should give him some hay to “deter” the behavior. Seriously?
- It was so bad that a muck tub of treats and hay was kept outside of his door. He would paw or kick, then we were required to run over and feed him to distract him. Clearly, we were only reinforcing this behavior!
Pawing in the cross-ties
- This got me thinking about my own horse. He was *usually* a superstar in the cross ties until we got back from a ride.
- During the untacking process, he would paw and stomp and ask for his carrot reward for a job well done. If I went into the tack room, which he could see the door to, I could hear him start pawing.
- I would immediately come out and approach him, sometimes giving him a verbal reprimand or shaking the cross tie rope as if to say, knock it off. So he would stop for a second, I would go finish what I was doing, and it would start again.
- I began to notice in the barn that every time any horse pawed, there was someone there to say “no” or “stop” or even just walk up to the horse. Same goes for feeding time – some of the horses would learn that if they pawed, they would (still) get fed, so the behavior was being reinforced. As much as the Grooms would say “no” or “knock it off”, they were saying those words as they opened the stall door and tossed the hay in.
How to deal with a horse that paws
- And my horse had started this pre-feeding behavior. Not happy. So, time to hit the drawing board. I decided to experiment. Against my “better judgement” at the time, I decided that every time my horse pawed in the crossties, I would turn my back, walk away, and disappear around a corner so he could not see me. When he stopped pawing, I would come back to him.
- If he started pawing as I approached him, I would turn and leave again.
- This was hard to do in a busy barn with Grooms and clients everywhere, so I had to ask/beg everyone to play along and not bother him if he pawed. I would be the only one to disappear. The first few days I tried this I waited until the barn was essentially empty to practice this.
- After about three days, five minutes at a time about twice a day, the pawing was gone. I still catch his shoulder muscles twitching, and this foot wanting to leave the ground, which really makes me laugh….. He will occasionally forget and throw in a paw, and I still drop whatever I am doing and walk away until I’m out of sight.
- For about a week I was the only one that fed him so that there was no confusion with other Grooms about how things would go. This was highly inconvenient, but I was worried about how his behavior could escalate and needed consistency to train him.
Replace pawing with another behavior
- He already knew how to back, move left, move right, step forward, move shoulders, move haunches and stop from verbal and hand signals, at liberty and with a halter. I trained these behaviors from a lovely book and a clicker.
- So I started with the most simple thing ever. He needed to stand in one particular corner with his head pointed into the wall before I would feed him. So I would use his signals to position him, have him stop, and then feed.
- About 3 days later, there was no need for me to use any signals. Now I could instruct everyone else how to feed him, and the instructions were easy. He stands there, or you keep walking and don’t feed him. This is a language he understands!
There is certainly no situation that works for everyone in terms of how to deter pawing behavior. This worked for me, and changed the role of “trainer” and “trainee” back into proper balance.
The book I refer to was an absolute game changer for me. I applied the same techniques to pawing as I did to spooking. You can pick up a copy here. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, but there is NO extra charge to you and I thank you!
How to Train Your Horse to do Anything Book
These cute clickers help your horse understand action and reward.
Also a clicker, but with a treat bag if you want to reward with food.
Positive horse training book from Shawna Karrash
Another great book about positive reinforcement for horses
The basics of clicker training your horse