Getting to know your horse is vital for building a strong bond of trust and communication, and a big part of this is understanding your horse’s body language, as it can’t just talk to you.
Horses communicate how they are feeling through different actions or poses, and knowing the reason behind different behaviors, is key to knowing if anything is wrong or not.
Many people think that when a horse paws at the ground repetitively, it’s due to a bad habit, or simply out of boredom. But like with everything a horse does, it can actually have many different meanings!
Often, your horse pawing at the ground is your horse trying to tell you something, as it is a means of communication, just the same as the positioning of the ears or flicks of the tail.
But what does it mean when a horse paws at the ground? Usually, it is either due to a physical reason, or a behavioral reason and within those, there is a wide range of things that it could be meaning. How are you supposed to know exactly what it means?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! We’ll answer these questions and more, so that you know everything important about the reasons why horses paw at the ground, and what to do.
Physical Reasons For Pawing At The Ground
When something is wrong, your horse can’t just tell you, so instead, they communicate through body language. This is why you have to pay close attention to any changes in behavior, as there could be a physical reason!
If you’re not sure what it means, we recommend you talk with your veterinarian, as sometimes the physical problem can be very hard to spot, but could be very serious.
If your horse is repeatedly pawing at the ground regularly, here are some possible physical reasons:
When a horse suffers from any sort of pain, pawing at the ground is a standard instinctive reaction. It is a way in which to try and reduce the pain, or at the very least distract themselves from it.
This pain could be from all sorts of different things, and not just something in the hoof or leg. An ulcer or colic are the most common cause of pawing at the ground due to pain.
Sometimes, instead of pain, pawing at the ground is an attempt of relieving discomfort. It could be that the saddle is too tight, or something isn’t on properly. So if this happens while you are riding, dismount and check all the gear.
Infections can cause pain and discomfort over a long period of time, and as the symptoms can cause your horse to paw at the ground, it can eventually seem like a bad habit or a vice, because there is “seemingly” nothing wrong. Don’t dismiss it, and make sure you have your horse checked if there is any sort of pawing!
Behavioral Reasons For Pawing At The Ground
If your horse has been pawing at the ground regularly, you’ve checked them over, and nothing is physically wrong with them, then it could be that they are pawing at the ground due to a behavioral issue or problem. That is when it is not pawing for natural behaviors.
So if it is pawing at the ground at odd moments, or constantly, so much so that it becomes worryingly noticeable.
Here are some behavioral reasons why your horse might be pawing at the ground:
They Want Attention
If your horse feels like you aren’t paying enough attention to them, or crave more due to any number of reasons, they could be pawing at the ground in order to get your attention. Kind of like when you call out to a friend or whistle at a dog. This is your horse’s way of saying “oi come over here I need you”.
A few times is endearing and fine, but if it happens constantly, your horse could have some sort of separation anxiety.
Horses are highly intelligent, and as such, they need to be mentally stimulated and entertained. If they have nothing to do for long periods of time, or there are no other horses with which to interact in the stalls, they can quickly become bored. This can lead to a habit of pawing at the ground, kicking at the door, biting at hinges, and many more.
To Establish Dominance
If the pawing at the ground is accompanied by your horse arching its neck and straightening its legs out, then it could be a sign of trying to assert dominance.
If your horse does this often in front of you, then they’re trying to tell you that they are in charge. And if they do it at the stalls or out in the field, they’re trying to be the boss of all the other horses.
It’s important that you establish your own dominance over your horse so that you’re the one calling the shots!
An Excess Amount Of Energy
Horses are very high-energy, more so if they are fed a lot of food and aren’t exercised enough. If your house continuously paws at the ground, it could be an attempt at releasing energy and showcasing restlessness.
This needs to be addressed because excess energy can lead to more dangerous things such as rearing or being out of control when ridden.
Do you know how humans sigh when they are frustrated with a situation, or when they don’t understand something? Well, pawing at the ground can be your horse’s version of this, a way of expressing that they are frustrated or confused.
It could be that you’re asking something of them and they don’t know what, or maybe they have been tied up for a long time and are getting tired.
This is often confused with a horse being bad-tempered, but communication between horse and rider just needs to be improved!
As A Sign Of Impatience
This is the most common behavioral reason for your horse to paw at the ground, usually showcased when you’re about to feed them. It’s your horse anticipating food, and being very eager. If it becomes very prominent, it might be something to address, but as a general rule, being eager is nothing bad, so it’s something that can be ignored!
Just like how toddlers stomp at the floor with their feet during a tantrum, a horse can paw at the ground when they are feeling irritated or annoyed.
For example, if there are lots of flies about, pestering your horse, or someone is making a horrible noise, or they are in a bit of a huff about something you’ve done. This is usually fine, just make sure that they are not regularly irritated, or else they will start developing bad habits out of frustration!
Horses are herd animals, they need to be in the company of other horses, or at the very least other animals or humans. They do not like being left alone for long periods of time, and this can lead to them developing a lot of stress, boredom, and frustration. This can then translate into a habit of pawing at the ground.
If your horse is pawing at the ground in rapid succession, regularly, it could be a sign that they are nervous about something, or anxious about the place they are in or activity they are being made to do. If this happens, it is important to reassure your horse and address the root cause.
Natural Behavioral Reasons For Pawing At The Ground
Sometimes, pawing at the ground is simply caused by natural behaviors, meaning there is nothing to be worried about. Wild horses can be seen pawing at the ground now and then, as a way to communicate with one another.
Here are some of the main natural behavioral reasons for horses pawing at the ground:
Horses out in the wild feed mainly on grass, and during the winter, when it is covered by ice and snow, they get to it by pawing at the ground. This helps break the layer of ice, allowing them to reach the grass. On top of this, pawing at the ground can drag up roots, which can be full of nutrients!
While Having Fun Or Playing
Horses love to play, and during playtime pawing at the ground is completely normal. For example, when a horse finds a puddle and starts pawing at the ground to create a splash!
To Show Curiosity
Horses are very inquisitive, and in order to explore things, they will usually use either their muzzle or their hooves. If your horse is pawing at the ground gently, it could be just an attempt to feel what something is, especially if it’s new, or they’re in an unknown place.
Before a horse rolls on the ground, it is common for them to paw at the ground in order to loosen the earth up. This way, the ground will be better for cooling themselves down, and for alleviating any sort of itch they might have!
It is quite common, for example, for horses to roll on the ground after a shower, to dry themselves off! (Although this usually just makes them dirty all over again!)
As A Sign Of Waiting
Within a herd, horses are very hierarchical, with one horse being in charge, and the rest respecting the line and order.
When they are sharing food, or taking turns to drink water from a certain source, horses will wait until it is their go. And to showcase that they are waiting, whether it be as a form of impatience, or to remind the other horses that they’re in line, they paw at the ground.
How To Know Why Your Horse Is Pawing At The Ground
Now that we’ve gone over the most common reasons for which horses paw at the ground, it’s time to figure out how to know the exact reason why your horse is pawing at the ground. After all, with so many possible explanations, how do you figure out what’s wrong, or what your horse is trying to communicate?
Here are the steps we recommend you take in order to figure out the reason:
- Determine whether it is a one-off or a recurring habit. Pawing at the ground now and then is no cause for concern, if it happens regularly, then you should start looking into it.
- Narrow it down to the type of cause: natural behavior, worrying behavior, or physical. If it is natural behavior, you will notice that the pawing happens in certain circumstances or instances, in a completely normal way. And if so, it is no cause for concern whatsoever.
- Ask the vet to check your horse over for any possible health issues, injuries, or similar. It is important to determine whether there is a physical reason or not.
- If there is no physical reason, and you have already discarded natural behavior, then it is a behavioral cause that you might need to address. Observe your horse’s behavior, find the patterns, and try to determine the root cause.
- Depending on the root cause, and the severity of the habit, act accordingly in order to implement a solution. Correcting behavioral problems can lead to your horse being healthier and happier!
Sometimes it can be very hard to figure out the exact reason for your horse’s pawing, so if you’re really struggling, we recommend you contact an equine specialist!
Does Pawing At The Ground Hurt Horses?
Horses can sometimes paw at the ground with quite a big amount of force, and if they do it regularly, you might start wondering whether this is harming or hurting them. The answer is neither yes nor no, it completely depends on the following factors:
The Type Of Ground
On most types of ground, pawing shouldn’t harm the horse’s hooves in any way. In fact, if anything, the ground will simply file down the hooves and wear them out a little. However, if the ground is especially hard or rough, this can cause the hooves to develop an irregular shape, which leads to the need for corrective shoeing.
Pawing at the ground now and then shouldn’t cause any damage to your horse. However, if pawing at the ground becomes a regular and repetitive habit, this can cause a lot of wear and tear to the hooves, and eventually cause some serious damage.
The Force Used
If a horse is pawing at the ground for a natural reason, it will do so in a healthy way. But if there is bad behavior or a physical reason behind the pawing, the horse might begin to use a lot more force, and this could lead to a shock injury to the hooves, legs, or joints.
As a general rule, pawing at the ground should not cause any injuries or any damage. However, depending on how your horse is pawing at the ground, or how often, it is important to intervene in order to avoid the possibility of your horse getting hurt.
How To Stop Your Horse From Pawing At The Ground
If your horse is constantly or regularly pawing at the ground, and you need to find a way to stop this, then you first of all have to figure out the cause. Learn the cause, and then you can apply the correct solution.
The absolute first step you should take is to get in contact with your veterinarian and organize a check-up for your horse. If there is a physical cause for the pawing at the ground, the vet should be able to pick up on it, so that it can be addressed and solved. And once the physical cause is removed, your horse should stop pawing at the ground.
However, if there is no physical cause, then the reason is behavioral, and this will take a little more digging. You have to observe your horse, within its habitat, lifestyle, and daily routine, and then determine what is causing the pawing.
Depending on the cause, here are what we recommend you do in order to solve the issue:
Pawing For Attention
This is when your horse is pawing at the ground in order to gain your attention. Some people say that the solution is to give your horse that attention, that way there is no need for pawing.
Other people, however, say that rewarding the pawing with the attention desired, teaches the horse that pawing gets them what they want, therefore reinforcing the habit. So what should you do?
We recommend teaching your horse to entertain itself. Make sure your horse has a lot to do, whether it is exercise, playing with toys, or other horses. That way, your horse will not require as much attention from you!
Pawing Out Of Boredom
Again, the solution for this is to make sure your horse is entertained and occupied, with plenty to do. You can make sure there are other horses or animals around, that there are toys, and that your horse gets enough exercise and daily activities.
Pawing To Establish Dominance
It can be funny at first, but your horse establishing dominance can lead to disobedience, loss of control, and more. It is very important that you solve this by establishing yourself as the leader so that your horse follows your commands and behaves in the way that is expected.
For this, you will need to practice a lot of groundwork exercises, and slowly build up an agreement with your horse, for what is okay and what isn’t. Make it clear that you’re in charge, but be a good leader so that your horse accepts you.
Pawing Due To Excess Energy
If your horse eats a lot, and barely leaves the stall, they are going to have a lot of excess energy in need to be used. To solve this, either exercise your horse more, by having more regular training sessions, or longer riding trips.
Or if this isn’t possible, let your horse out into a field with other horses, rather than staying in a stable. This will allow your horse to wander around throughout the day, run and play with the other horses, and overall use up energy.
Pawing Out Of Frustration
The solution for this is to be extra patient with your horse and to not get angry when your horse doesn’t understand something or does something wrong. Instead, reinforce good behavior, and give your horse lots of praise when they succeed in something.
Pawing Out Of Impatience
This usually happens during feeding time, as your horse knows that it is time for food, and might start pawing at the ground in eagerness, almost like “asking” or “demanding” the food. This is something that needs to be discouraged, as it can develop a bad habit of demanding things.
To solve this, switch up the routine now and then. If your horse isn’t sure of when something is supposed to happen, it’s harder for them to demand it, and eventually, they will just learn to accept things when they come, instead of getting impatient.
Pawing Due To Irritation
If your horse is pawing at the ground out of irritation, find what is irritating them, and remove it from the equation. If it’s flies or bugs, make sure your horse is protected, if it’s from a situation or activity, reduce it or improve it. Make sure your horse is happy, and the irritation will go down.
Pawing Due To Isolation
The best and only solution for this is to make sure your horse isn’t lonely or left alone for long periods of time. Horses need to be part of a group, they need interaction regularly in order to thrive and feel comfortable.
Make sure there are other horses or animals with your horse, or at the very least, make sure you or others visit your horse every single day.
Pawing Out Of Nervousness
If your horse is pawing at the ground out of nervousness or anxiety, you need to find what is causing it, and then help your horse overcome it.
For example, if your horse gets stressed around loud noises, and starts pawing, slowly teach your horse that loud noises are okay. Slowly build confidence around the situations that cause nerves, and eventually, your horse should be okay.
To sum this up, when a horse paws at the ground, it is one of three reasons: natural behavior, behavioral issues, or a physical cause. Pawing at the ground now and then should be no cause for concern, but if it happens often, and develops into a habit, you need to put a stop to it.