horse pawing the ground

Photo by Spanishbarbs

Understanding Horse Pawing and How to Address It

by | Aug 5, 2023 | Equine Behavior, Equine Health

When you witness a horse pawing the ground, you might initially consider it an endearing trait or a harmless activity. But, what if this act is not just a mere playful gesture? A Horse pawing the ground is more than a simple equine behavior—it often carries significant meaning. It’s essential for horse enthusiasts, caretakers, and trainers to grasp the underlying reasons for such behavior. While occasional pawing is a natural aspect of a horse’s repertoire, recurrent or intense pawing often hints at a deeper issue or discomfort that requires attention.

Understanding Horse Behavior:

To comprehend why horses exhibit certain behaviors, one must first understand their instinctual drivers. In the wild, horses are prey animals. This evolutionary foundation implies that horses are always alert, attentive, and rarely indulge in acts without a specific purpose. Their actions, whether it’s the flick of an ear, the swish of a tail, or the deliberate pawing at the ground, are crucial components of their communication arsenal. Body language serves as their primary means of conveying feelings, intentions, and sometimes even distress.

Purposeful vs. Non-purposeful Pawing:

Pawing with a Purpose: Horses don’t just paw for the sake of it. There are often genuine reasons behind such actions:

  • Splashing in water: Like many animals, horses sometimes enjoy splashing in puddles or shallow waters. This act can be both playful and practical, especially if they’re attempting to drink or perhaps cool down.
  • Exposing forage under snow: During colder months, forage might get covered with snow. By pawing the ground, horses can access the hidden food, ensuring their survival in harsh conditions.
  • Softening soil before rolling: Horses roll to alleviate skin irritations or simply to enjoy a dust bath. Pawing softens the ground, making their rolling experience more pleasant.
Horse Playing with Water

Photo by Azimut

Indicators of Physical Discomfort or Mental Stress: Sometimes, the pawing is a sign that all is not well. Ignoring or misinterpreting these signals can lead to exacerbation of underlying problems:

  • When horses communicate distress through pawing, it’s often an indication of physical discomfort or mental anguish. It could stem from gastrointestinal pain, orthopedic issues, or even anxiety and boredom.

Physical Discomfort Causes:

One cannot overstate the importance of addressing physical discomfort promptly:


  • Gastric and hindgut ulcers: A common ailment in domestic horses, ulcers can lead to recurrent pawing. The association between gastrointestinal issues and pawing is well-documented, emphasizing the necessity for timely intervention.
  • Significance of forage and movement: Just like their ancestors, domesticated horses need ample forage and regular movement. A deficiency in either can manifest in several ways, including pawing.
  • Orthopedic pain: A study involving 41 Standardbreds unveiled interesting findings concerning pawing post-exercise. The horses that exhibited frequent pawing were more likely to experience orthopedic discomfort, particularly post rigorous training sessions.

Mental Stress Causes:

Horses, despite their strength and grandeur, are sensitive creatures prone to mental stress:


  • Boredom: In the wild, horses graze, play, and explore for the better part of the day. Confined in stalls, they lack these natural activities, leading to boredom which often manifests in behaviors like pawing.
  • Feeding Times: Horses have a sharp internal clock. When feeding times are irregular or delayed, their anticipation can result in anxiety-driven pawing.

Excess Energy:

One of the often-overlooked reasons for pawing is a buildup of energy:

  •  Energy Overload: Horses are built for movement. They’re designed to roam, graze, play, and run. When kept in confined spaces without adequate exercise or turnout, they accumulate excess energy. This stored energy often finds its way out through behaviors like pacing, and yes, pawing the ground.
Horse Energetically Pawing

Photo by Kc.sminsights

Stereotypy Development:

Over time, repeated behaviors can turn into ingrained habits known as stereotypies:


  •  What is a Stereotypy? A stereotypy is a repetitive, unvarying behavior that doesn’t serve an apparent goal or function. It’s believed to be an expression of chronic stress or frustration.
  • Pawing as a Stereotypy: When pawing becomes persistent and intense, without an evident trigger, it could have evolved into a stereotypy. Addressing the root cause, whether it’s a health issue, environmental factor, or mental stress, is imperative to curtail its progression.

Simple Solutions to Address Pawing:

Understanding why a horse is pawing is half the battle. The next step involves intervention and providing solutions:

  • Combatting Boredom: One practical way is introducing hay bags, which prolong feeding time and simulate the continuous grazing behavior observed in the wild. Toys and environmental enrichments can also keep them engaged.
  • Varying Treat Times: Instead of sticking to a rigid feeding schedule, randomizing treat times can keep horses from developing anticipatory anxiety. It challenges their internal clock, making them less likely to paw out of mealtime impatience.
  • Thinking Horse: To genuinely address pawing, one needs to empathize with the horse. Understand their world, their needs, and the natural behaviors they’re inclined to follow.

Common Misconceptions:

There are several misconceptions regarding horse behavior, and pawing is no exception:

  • Attention Seeking?: It’s easy to dismiss pawing as a mere attention-seeking act. While horses do sometimes use behaviors to get our attention, labeling all pawing as such oversimplifies a multifaceted issue. The actual need might be more profound and essential.
  • Importance of Environment: Creating a stress-free, stimulating environment goes a long way in ensuring a horse’s mental and physical well-being. Their behavior is a direct reflection of their living conditions and the care they receive.


A Horse pawing the ground might seem like a trivial behavior on the surface, but it often communicates volumes about a horse’s health, well-being, and state of mind. Recognizing and addressing the root causes of this behavior can drastically improve the quality of life for these majestic creatures. As custodians of their care, it’s our responsibility to observe closely, understand deeply, and act accordingly.

For those truly dedicated to the welfare of their equine companions, the message is clear: Listen more, assume less, and always prioritize their well-being.

Your next steps? Dive deeper into the world of horse behavior, enrich their environments, and always remember that behind every behavior, there’s a message waiting to be deciphered.

Further Reading/Resources:

Related: Signs of Pain in Horses
Related: Why Do Horses Stomp Their Feet?

About The Author

<a href="" target="_self">Austin Davis</a>

Austin Davis

Austin Davis, is a real-life cowboy hailing from the sweeping plains of Texas. He was born and bred in the heart of cowboy country and has spent his entire life immersed in the ranching and rodeo culture. With a firm grasp on everything from cattle drives to the subtleties of horse whispering, Austin brings an unparalleled authenticity to his writing that comes straight from the source.

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