Equine Behavior Questions and Answers

The Question: Why does my horse paw when he eats his sweet feed?

Why does my 7 year old gelding paw the ground as he eats his sweet feed? He doesn't do that when he grazes or eats hay.

The Answer


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.

Luckily if he only paws at dinner time, he won’t do too much damage. He may wear a hole in his stall so keep an eye on it and fill any holes regularly. If you feed him outside his stall, you can vary the place you feed him so he won’t dig a hole as quickly.

Some people use “pawing chains” to stop their horses from pawing. These are leather anklets with a length of chain that dangles down. When the horse paws, the chain raps him on the hoof. Since it hurts, the horse normally stops pawing while wearing the chains. However the chains don’t address the real problem – the horse’s stress – so he may start displaying other stereotypies to cope. Because of this, I don’t recommend pawing chains unless the horse’s behavior is causing him harm.

The Equine Behaviorist

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