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I have a horse who would constantly paw at the ground when being fed hard food. Basically any feed that was given to her in a container.

Some background:
When I got her she was underweight, covered in whip marks and frightened. So she had been starved to some extent, and mistreated to another extent. She was also heavily pregnant and did not look pregnant at all.

How can I stop her from pawing the ground when she is eating?

  • I have read some book of Monty Roberts. I could not remember all details but there was something with feets too. The horse became a little peace of light wood bound on its leg (not out of sight of a human) to give a little tap when the misbehavior appears. I could not remember if this was a traditional way described by the author, or an alternative he suggests. – Allerleirauh Feb 28 at 11:53
  • @Allerleirauh yes there's a few techniques like that, but I'm not in favour of tying things to the horse, it's a risk of injury. – user6796 Feb 28 at 18:20
  • Yes, I am sceptical too. Because of this I write a lot "if" and "maybe". But I want to mention it. – Allerleirauh Feb 29 at 21:05
  • @Allerleirauh of course, it's a good thing to mention, as probably a lot of people do it and swear by it. – user6796 Feb 29 at 21:40
  • I remain sceptical and also do not think that hurting a horse for pawing is reasonable. It is an old remnant of times where horses where treated as objects, but I think we all agree riders of the 21th century have moved past that point, especially if the horse has already went through serious mistreatment! – kaiya Mar 8 at 0:09
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I've worked with this horse and her pawing for two years and she rarely paws now, but it's something I need to keep an eye on.

In this case she needed to be fed and have reliable food sources. As she was clearly anxious around food, as a result of going hungry.

I also needed to work on my relationship with her and earn her trust. As she was aggressive towards humans, due to being mistreated and was actually frightened of people.

As I earned her trust I was able to start correcting her when she pawed. I would use my foot or a short stick to help me reach across or my hand (depending on where we were both standing) and tap the leg lightly if she looked like she was about to paw or indeed did paw and say "no". It was a painstaking procedure to continually do this, but at that stage it was the only thing I had and I did want to build up a relationship with her, where I could teach her and she would respect me. As she was capable of turning her butt and kicking people or other horses with both barrels. So extremely dangerous when I first got her.

We ended up in a paddock which had electric stand offs on a timber post and rail fence. The ideal fencing set up for horses. So there was a strand of electric fencing wire approximately two feet from the ground, six inches inside the fence line.

I would put her feeder up on the fence so she had to stand at the fence to eat. If she raised her knee to paw, she would occasionally get zapped by the electric fence. It took almost no time to completely eradicate this pawing behaviour when feeding. I was able to feed her away from the fence with success after this, as she grew used to eating without pawing and this experience was without consequence, by that I mean, she learned to eat without pawing and that had no bad consequence - not the electric fence shocking her.

She has only pawed once since this time, recently. There was a lot of competition for the food at the time, a lot of horses in the paddock and she was clearly stressed. So this setback is my fault and our horses are a reflection of us, their owners, as are all our pets. It is by taking this responsibility, I'm able to best serve them as a owner. It can sound harsh, but indeed it is empowering. It means wherever there is a problem, there is a solution.

This little article from Equine Behavior Questions and Answers adequately sums up what is going on with her from a psychological level.

Pawing is often considered a stereotypie – a repetitive behavior that serves no obvious, outward purpose. However stereotypies do serve a purpose – they are a coping mechanism that help horses deal with stress. Some horses start pawing when they eat because they’re nervous about not getting fed. Sometimes that’s because they were starved earlier in life and other times it is because they feel threatened that other horses may steal their food. Once they start pawing, it is almost impossible to cure them of it – even long after the source of stress is gone. You can make him feel more secure by making sure he gets his meal at close to the same time each day and by making sure no other horses are around to threaten him – either in the same pen as he is or lunging at him through fences or over stall doors.

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  • Even though I disagreed with the comment above, I can agree with the electric fence method. The situation here is a little different, since the fence will not follow and hurt the horse or scare it litterally to death (via panicking) if the horse tries to escape it by backing up or rearing, ... ;) Good point to mention the mental aspects (reliable food sources,...). – kaiya Mar 8 at 0:14
  • @MelissaLoos yeh, I don't regard an electric fence as harming a horse. It's more a shock than anything, as someone who has been stung by all the fences my horses have :D – user6796 Mar 8 at 2:23

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