What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.




Horses paw with their forelimbs for several reasons. It can be a sign of frustration, impatience or anxiety.Some horses habitually paw when they are anxious for feed, while they are eating, or when they are tied or trailered. Pawing can also be a sign that is a horse is about to lie down and roll for pleasure. Some horses enjoy pawing in water and in preparation for lying down in water.

As a behavioral problem, pawing can be an annoying and damaging habit. In rare cases, horses traumatize themselves through constant pawing against unforgiving stall walls and floors.

Importantly, however, pawing is a classic sign of abdominal pain (colic). In this case, there will usually (not always) be other signs like lying down, kicking at belly or looking at the side. If you are not sure why else a horse is pawing, always consider colic pain as the cause.

  • Code Red

    Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours
    • If you are convinced this is a sign of colic (abdominal pain).
    • If you notice other signs of abdominal pain (colic).
    • If the behavior continues with no explanation.
    • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.
  • Code Green

    Contact Your Vet to Obtain Useful Advice & Resources
    • If you are confident that this is a behavioral problem and not colic.

your role


What To Do

Assess your horse's general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), paying particular attention to attitude and appetite, heart rate, intestinal sounds and gum color. Watch them carefully for a few minutes, looking especially for other signs of abdominal pain. But keep in mind that this could be the only sign that you will see in some horses.

If you think this is a sign of abdominal pain or if you are unsure, call your vet immediately to discuss your findings and concerns.

What Not To Do

Do not assume that this behavior is not related to colic (abdominal pain). When in doubt contact your vet.

your vet's role

Your vet differentiates this behavior as caused by abdominal pain, versus other causes. If they determine that it is associated with colic, then the condition causing colic is diagnosed and treated. If they determine that it is not related to colic and is simply behavioral, then they may have ideas for helping reduce or eliminate the behavior.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • Are you seeing other signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • When did you first notice this?
  • Have you changed your horse's feed or management lately?
  • Is this a long standing behavior or something new?
  • Does your horse have a history of colic?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?
  • When did you first notice the behavior?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

Very Common
Less Common
more diagnoses

further reading & resources

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP