Pawing Problem

Is there a humane method for breaking my 4-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare from pawing?
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Q: Is there a humane method for breaking my 4-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare from pawing? She has taken this to a dangerous level by getting her leg stuck in the fence, hurting herself enough to the point of requiring surgery on a forelimb flexor tendon and an ensuing four-month recovery. During her hospitalization, all of the vets and techs commented on her incessant pawing: while eating, when bored, while being groomed, while being stroked, when alone, basically just at any given time. No solution was offered when asked. They just shrugged and said she needed to stop, but they didn’t know how to break her. We (my trainer and I) have tried ignoring the behavior, slapping the pawing leg, hobbling her, making her work, lunging her, and tying her; nothing has worked. I continually read articles on vices, but no one seems to have a specific method for "unteaching" this annoying, now-dangerous behavior. I have pictures of this horse as a newborn pawing. I have had her since she was a coming 3-year-old, and she has always done this. She even comes to the fence and paws during her 24/7 pasture turnout. She paws when tied up, which I believe is out of boredom or belligerence or is an attention-seeking behavior. I tie her, and while I am getting her tack or putting it up she paws. I holler at her to quit and she does, but she usually begins again right away. I have tried turning my back on her, but she just continues pawing until she’s ready to quit. My trainer hobbled her recently, and she pawed as best she could and dug quite a hole while hobbled. Other than this bad habit, she is a very sweet, compliant horse. Her mother also pawed, but her breeder tells me that she suddenly stopped this behavior for no apparent reason. My trainer and I aren’t sure what to do–we are even considering a shock collar. Any help you might offer would be greatly appreciated.

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A: First, I would recommend that you not use a shock collar or hobbles. If you have truly ignored the pawing for a couple of months, and it got her no reward, then it likely has an underlying physical cause rather than a learned habit. Also, if she did it as a young foal, then it is unlikely that she learned it. Did her dam paw at the time she was a foal? Anyway, I think it is inhumane to punish the behavior, and shock collars and hobbles in my opinion are an especially inhumane approach to modifying any horse behavior.

Second, I would recommend trying to figure out anything that could be causing your horse discomfort or stress. For example, gastric ulcers are common in horses that paw. One of the first things I recommend for horses such as yours is to have gastroscopy done at a veterinary clinic to check for ulcers. This involves passing a fiber-optic tube with a camera on the end into the stomach and examining for ulcers. The procedure takes only a few minutes. It is done with the horse standing–usually in stocks and usually sedated. If there are ulcers, you can treat them. There are some very effective medications for eliminating gastric ulcers. Pawing is likely to be reduced in horses when gastric ulcers are eliminated. When gastric ulcers are found, it’s difficult to know whether the discomfort of the ulcers is the original and only cause of the pawing, or whether the ulcers and the pawing are caused by some other discomfort or stressor. It’s possible that the two are unrelated. But, in any case, it’s better to have no gastric ulcers

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Written by:

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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