Why Do Horses Paw Water?

 “My horse has an annoying habit of standing at the water trough & splashing water”

You will see variations of this sentence posted across the internet on forums and social media platforms. At times it may pertain to a bucket in the stable, splashing water in a puddle or even when crossing a river  and other water sources. Well, it certainly isn’t a habit and should never be seen as annoying.  Owners may find that having a soaking wet stable from such an occurrence something of an inconvenience, although I would suggest a horse standing in a box is feeling far more exasperated than the owner.

Horses use a front hoof to strike out at water, and often change hoof during this manoeuvre. It is a similar movement to when a horse gently paws the ground of his paddock when planning to roll. Although there can be obvious differences between preparing to roll in water, or roll on grass. Horses generally circle the chosen rollspot, while simultaneously sniffing the ground before actually committing to lying down. Only pausing between turns to paw at the ground, much like a dog scratching at the blanket in his basket. The knees will start to buckle as the horse prepares and will often fully drop to their knees before changing their mind and begin the entire process again i.e. pawing, sniffing, turning, pawing etc.

Why Paw The Ground?

We know horses evolved to eat mainly grass, yet the grass plains these early horses roamed 10 million years ago are very much different from today’s manufactured pastures. Moreover, 55 million years ago their habitat was forested areas and they thrived on a diet of shrubs and tree leaves. With the expansion of grass plains forming from a changing climate horses evolved to have the attributes we see today and with similar diets. But in both habitats, they each have something in common, in that, in large areas the ground would have been covered in dense vegetation such as tall grass or trees and shrubs. While horses are very capable of napping while standing, deep sleep can only be achieved while laying down. Additionally horses must lay down in order to give birth, and to roll which will  remove irritants such as parasites and vegetation, and to cool down in water.

Being a prey animal, the horse developed long legs, a longer neck, and both monocular and binocular vision, as well as lightening quick reflexes and speed. Yet Mother Nature insists on balance, after-all the predators must also eat. The weakness of the horse is its blind spot due to the position of the eyes. Physiologically the animal is well equipped to recognise a predator from a great distance, but will fail to see what may be lurking directly at his feet. Hence, pawing the ground while sniffing is beneficial in identifying or removing harmful debris, or dangerous critters. Randomly dropping to the ground whether it is long grass, sand or even a dense forest could have proved perilous.

And Water?

Much for the same reason, apart from crocodiles and alligators which are alerted to the sound and movement of splashing, most creatures will move away from the source. Now think about that puddle your horse won’t walk through. Owners in my experience can be bewildered why their horse refuses to walk through a puddle, especially on a horse yard. Both the position and the colour can influence how a horse will respond to puddles. If it’s in shade or dirty, the horse will instinctively act with caution, particularly if the bottom isn’t visible.  If it is reflecting strong sunlight that is dazzling, again the horse may feel confused about what he is seeing. You will see the horse slightly twist his head as he changes from binocular, to monocular vision in an attempt to identify whether it is safe or not.

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If he is forced to walk through it he may even stop to sniff it before pawing at it, because he’s checking for (and dispersing) critters and checking the depth. Horses generally like to see what is lurking in or under a puddle. Pawing has many functions and is not always a precursor to rolling. Splashing can also be achieved with the muzzle, and is most commonly seen at the water trough. Horses often use this method in a forward, backward motion before drinking, and again, this not only removes small critters from the immediate muzzle area, but moves away vegetation such as algal blooms. The horse is essentially clearing an area in which to drink from. Using a hoof in a very small area such as a trough or bucket could be a precursor to rolling, especially if the horse is hot. Its instinct driving him to cool down, as is the pawing, even when he is probably aware he cant physically roll in such a small area.

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Attentive owners should ensure their horse is not feeling overly warm in the stable, which should minimise, or eradicate the horse’s need to find respite. As with troughs and serial trough splasher’s, offer shelter in the field and lose the rugs, or even construct a small water hole so that the horse can roll in water.  Rolling, even laying in water is a natural, and an essential part of a horse’s life and something they have always done, and have evolved to do. Imagine being utterly compelled to do something but find yourself impeded, you would feel just as frustrated as the horse splashing in his water bucket. Vices generally form from frustration and boredom and causes mental stress, which could all be avoided by meeting the animals basic needs. A horse habitually splashing in a bucket, or a water trough is a signal his basic needs are not being met. So rather than feeling annoyance, try to understand what the horse is telling you, and find a solution.

Images – By Kind permission of photographer Gary Odell

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2 thoughts on “Why Do Horses Paw Water?”

  1. Very interesting 👍 I just wanted know when I ride her in X.C I walk go into the water then she stop and start play her leg to splash the water then I start to move on she walk on. Why she did that? I worry I not want her play splash then maybe try lay or roll the water?? I not know? She only want play?? She only age 5

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    1. Hi Terri, start confidence training. Teach her that when she is with you, she can trust you are the leader, and that the leader will keep her safe… even through water. Spend some time doing groundwork, and leading (and rewarding) through water. Encourage her not to splash, she’s only young so take your time. Building her confidence in many things while with you, will also help in many situations. Good luck!

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