Is pawing a sign of discomfort?

It is often a familiar sound for horse owners: horses pawing their foreleg on the floor or against the stable door. This may be behaviour that the horse shows when he hears the food trolley coming, but researchers now say that it is also a sign of discomfort. 


“Horses rarely do anything for no reason,” said Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, professor at Cornell University in New York. “And that reason is not to be annoying.” This is because the reason can be pain relief. Houpt and Christina Butler, DVM, also from Cornell University, found in their survey of 41 American trotters that the horses tended to paw more within 4 hours after training compared to before training. Many of the horses also tried to stand with their hind legs in the ‘hole’ they had dug with their forelegs. 

“By bringing the hind legs to a lower position, the weight is somewhat removed from the forelegs, which may be a sign that the horse is hurting in its forelegs, especially after training.” 


In their research, 58% of the horses (aged between 3 and 12 years) were pawing at one time during the observation. This pawing did not seem to be related to the feeding time. 

Houpt said that pawing during feeding time or while the horse is tied is a learned behaviour that is rewarded, for example, by getting food or attention. But the other kind of pawing in the stable seems to be a natural, repeated behavior that may help to relieve pain in the limbs or abdomen. It was interesting to note that the pawing occurred least on Sunday afternoon, when the horses were not trained. 


“Pawing itself is not really a problem for the musculoskeletal system,” Houpt said. “So we don’t have to stop the pawing. But pawing can be a sign of a musculoskeletal problem, so what needs to be stopped is what causes the problem.” 


Although the research was conducted with American trotters, who have their own pains and deficiencies as a result of the trotting sport, horses that are ridden under saddle may react to these pains in the same way. Follow-up research is needed to determine how often horses stand in holes they have dug themselves to relieve pain. 


The research, ‘Pawing by Standardbred Racehorses: Frequency and Patterns’, was published in the Journal of Equine Science.

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