Q: There are two sets of cross-ties in my barn that are set between two rows of stalls. One has a door that opens to the outside and the other just has four solid walls, though there is a high small window at the back. My off-the-track Thoroughbred hates the cross-ties that have the solid walls. I can’t leave him alone or he paws and weaves on those cross-ties. I can leave him on the ones with the door. When that door is open, occasionally people come through it to cut through the barn. It doesn’t bother him at all. It’s a busy boarding barn so I’d like to be able to use either cross-ties. Why does he like one over the other and can I train him to behave on the closed-in set?
A: Addressing this problem is very important. Pawing can damage your horse’s shoes, hooves and joints. The extra energy he expends weaving can lead to weight loss.
Both habits result from boredom, anxiety, isolation from other horses or anticipation of food. Your horse may prefer the open cross-ties because he feels less confined and has a better view of other horses—or he may behave better there because there are no tempting treats nearby.
Stable vices like these have never been observed in wild horses living in natural environments—with 24/7 access to open, grassy spaces, constant equine companionship and a high-fiber, low-calorie diet (i.e., more grass and hay and less concentrated feed). Unfortunately, many race, sport and performance horses live in extremely unnatural environments. Because they are rarely turned out to pasture and often isolated from other horses, they channel their boredom, anxiety and loneliness into stable vices.
Your horse’s behavior might be so ingrained that you’ll never completely eliminate it. However, you may be able to reduce its frequency by minimizing the contributing stress factors and thus improving his general contentedness. Before addressing the cross-tie situation, increase his turnout time and access to grass, always providing proximity to a buddy.
When you cannot get the more open grooming stall, try these ideas:
1. When he is in the closed-in cross-tie area, help him feel less alone by ensuring that he can see other horses.
2. Give him an even better view of his buddies—and reduce the claustrophobia partly caused by the cross-ties—by creating a makeshift horizontal barrier to keep him in the stall without having to be attached to the cross-ties. Connect two lead ropes and tie them to the walls on the sides of the grooming stall near the entrance—or place a stall guard across the opening. Install either barrier at his chest height, not so droopy that he can trip over it, or so high that he can slip under it. Allowing him to hang his head out into the aisle over the barrier will be less confining and more comforting to him.
3. To address the potential food motivation that encourages pawing, look to see if there are treats (carrots, etc.), grain, supplements or hay stored near the closed-in set of cross-ties. If so, ask if you can move them out of sight. Never feed your horse when he’s in the cross-ties. Even an occasional treat can encourage begging in the form of pawing. If you do want to give him a treat, do so after your ride in the ring or when you put him back in his stall.
4. Make every experience in the closed-in grooming area as brief and enjoyable as possible for your horse. Organize all of your tack and equipment—grooming box, saddle, saddle pad, bridle, boots, helmet, etc.—next to the cross-ties before getting him, so you won’t ever have to leave him alone.
From the first moment you see him, set a happy, positive, respectful tone. Focus on him—so that he focuses on you! Speak to him softly and frequently and give him lots of pats. The more bonded he is to you, the more confident he’ll feel, wherever you are. When you lead him into the grooming stall, march in quickly, then turn yourself around without pulling on the lead rope. Allow him to turn his body around on his own “wheels” so he doesn't tweak anything.
As you groom him, keep his attention with your voice, touch and gentle use of the brushes, always letting him know where you are. Instead of reaching directly for a foot to pick it up, run your hand down the entire leg and then ask him to pick it up.
Groom him quickly, then tack up carefully and efficiently. Think of placing the saddle onto his back like a butterfly. Tighten his girth very gradually. Try to make the whole experience pleasant.
5. If he still paws or weaves occasionally, reprimand him with a sharp “No!” or “Quit!" and a quick smack on his foreleg. This may interrupt his pattern temporarily, but it won’t stop it from happening again. However, the more consistently you respond to his behavior with this sort of reprimand, the better he will understand.
6. Finally, as a last resort and possibly more relaxed option to the closed-in cross-ties, try grooming, saddling and bridling him in his stall or have a friend hold him while you tack up.
Hunter/jumper trainer Julia Seltz left a career in the entertainment business ten years ago to ride and groom horses. She volunteered as an apprentice groom at Arbor Lanes Farm in Los Angeles before being hired as a professional groom for many hunter/jumper trainers, including Susix Steedman, Rosey Reed, Tommi Clark, and Shauna Pennell, as well as dressage trainer Camilla Fritze. Sometimes in charge of as many as 20 horses at a time, Julia developed the skills for keeping horses happy and healthy and for making them look their best both in and out of the show ring. As of one of her employers often said, “The horse should go out looking like a diamond, schooling or showing.” Currently based in Pasadena, Julia teaches fundamental horsemanship, riding and horse care at San Pasqual Stables and grooms and schools jumpers for grand prix rider Nicolas Rossi at Sterckx Stables. She is also a contributing editor for the West Coast publication The Equestrian News.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.