Most equestrians have suffered through an incessantly pawing horse in the crossties.
Frustration often gets the best of us and it can be tempting to resort to scolding, yanking on the crossties, or worse to stop this annoying, destructive and potentially dangerous behavior. Sometimes this approach is successful. But more often than not, you’ve won the battle and the war continues in spite.
How do we prevent time spent in the crossties from dissolving into a pawing fit? Equine behaviorists have examined this question and offer insight into the benefits and limitations of potential solutions: punishment versus positive reinforcement. Their discoveries may change the way you approach pawing and other undesirable behaviors.
What do we know about the punishment method?
According to behavior researchers John Cooper and Paul McGreevy of the University of Sydney, the most common approach to managing unwanted behaviors in horses is through aversive control, or punishment, such as scolding, slapping, or whipping.
And there’s some validity to this method. The same scientists established that a horse will indeed learn to associate pawing with the punishment applied and, as a result, will try to avoid human-inflicted discomfort by decreasing pawing behavior.
However, the cure may be worse than the disease—many long-term difficulties develop from excessive punishment.
First, it’s a demanding solution. Only consistent, meticulously-timed execution of a punishment will effectively teach your horse to stop pawing, leaving no room for human error. If imperfectly applied, this harsh miscommunication will confuse and scare your horse.
Second, decades of animal behavior research suggests that horses become less responsive to punishment over time. When punishment is overused or misused, the horse will lose hope and feel trapped, conditioning them to become dull to its application. This condition is known as “learned helplessness.” When horses’ sensitivity to a punishment decreases, handlers often increase force to maintain effectiveness, ultimately inflaming the war and tempting abuse.
Finally, it’s decreases from shared enjoyment. Long-term application of a punishment will make time together with your horse less pleasant for both parties. Your horse will feel less inclined to interact with you and may try to avoid you all together.
Given these limitations, punishment may be too unsustainable to be considered a reliable, effective, or humane practice for reducing pawing and other unwanted behaviors.
What is the alternative to negative reinforcement?
Behaviorist Adam E. Fox from St. Lawrence University suggests a less conventional approach to managing pawing. His proven, preferred method is to ignore the unwanted behavior and then reward your horse, immediately, once the pawing stops. A reward may be in the form of a treat, a “good boy,” or any positive attention your horse particularly enjoys.
This method is an example of positive reinforcement, as a positive stimulus is precisely applied for the animal to associate the correct behavior with a reward. Ultimately, a horse should learn to offer the correct behavior in the future, using his logically wired mind to seek out a pleasant response from his human.
It is also the more difficult solution. Positive reinforcement is less frequently utilized when managing difficult horse behaviors compared to punishment or other negative reinforcement techniques as most horse owners aren’t inclined to wait, hoping for pawing to cease, while their horse scrapes up the ground and his hooves alike. However, Fox would suggest that we strengthen our patience and try. Positive reinforcement is a promising and kinder solution to an annoying habit.
In short: a quick scold may temporarily keep your horse’s legs still, but an effort towards managing your own patience will effectively reduce pawing and likely nourish the bond you share with your horse. After all, the hours we are lucky enough to spend with horses each day are precious and few. Wouldn’t you prefer it be positive too?