Addressing Pawing at Feed Time
I’ve actually had personal experience with a horse that developed the habit of pawing at feed time. In the early days of my career, when I was on the road every weekend giving clinics, going to tours and expos, Mindy went along with me and developed this habit. When I’m at a tour or expo, I’m always kind of in a hurry. I have people to see, demonstrations to do and so forth. I’d go see Mindy in the morning, feed her and quickly leave. Sometimes, I didn’t even get to feed her myself. I’d have one of my apprentices feed her. Mindy got into the habit of standing at the stall door and pawing at it to be fed in the morning. Because we were all in a hurry when feeding and didn’t take notice of it right away, Mindy’s pawing just got worse and worse until it became a serious problem.
To fix the problem, if Mindy was standing at the stall door and pawing, wanting her feed quicker, I just didn’t feed her. I fed every other horse in the barn and left her. Of course in the beginning, that made her really upset and she’d paw even more, whinny and act like I was the worst owner in the world. But I just left her there. When she finally stopped pawing, maybe an hour or two later, I’d put the grain in her bin, rub her on the neck and walk out of the stall. I would only feed her once she completely relaxed and wasn’t thinking about feed.
What I noticed was when I finally did feed her, it was like a surprise, “I thought you forgot about me Clinton. Thank you very much!” And I noticed how much more expressive she was about being fed. It was almost like she was thankful or grateful that I was feeding her. Previously, her attitude, when she was pawing at the door, was a bit bossy. Like, “Come on. You know I’m the greatest superstar in the world. You need to feed me now!” kind of deal.
It wasn’t easy to break Mindy of her habit—this routine went on for about five days in a row until I eventually got her to stand quietly during feeding time. At the end of that first week, when I went to feed the horses, I noticed she didn’t even think she was going to get fed. She had her head in the stall corner, hind leg cocked and was sleeping. Before, as soon as she heard me rattling around the scoops, she was banging the stall bars like a prisoner. Now, it was almost like she wasn’t interested and could care less about it.
So how did I stop Mindy’s behavior? By no longer rewarding it. Because I was in a hurry, I was rewarding her bad behavior by throwing her feed when she was pawing. She in turn thought that pawing would get her feed faster. Once I stopped rewarding her behavior, and made her wait until she was no longer pawing, she soon learned not to get excited. I will admit that it wasn’t always easy for me to go back at a later time and feed her, especially in the evenings. However, oftentimes with horses, the most convenient thing is not always the thing that will fix the problem. In fact, it never is!