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Instinctive Behaviour - Displacement?

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  • Instinctive Behaviour - Displacement?

    I have a horse that holds her leg up while eating her grain. She always starts with her left - holds it way up, occasionally paws but usually just has it up in the air. And then she switches to the other leg. And then back again. I have done some research after someone said that this is a very primitive and instinctive behaviour - and I see it's called a "displacement" by some. They say because a horse has been designed to eat and move, eat and move - and by standing at a bucket we have taken the moving part away from them.

    Then I also noticed that other vices are termed "displacement" - that included weaving and stall walking. Well low and behold - this mare does both! And she paces in her paddock as well when she wants on the other side of the fence.

    Does anyone have anything to add to the behaviours of a horse that shows this "displacement" with the leg holding thing? I have seen young horses and babies do it, but it seems like most of them grow out of it. Well this mare is now 8 years old! I don't think she is growing out of it any time soon! What would these behaviours tell you about the state of mind of that horse? Would they concern you at all? Would a horse like this be better suited for one sport over another?

    I guess I am looking for some insight on this - kind of like where they say "a whorl in the middle of the forehead usually means this temperament" is there anything to the instinctive behaviours like leg holding while eating?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  • #2
    I believe that holding the foot up is a form of pawing... it's pawing- just not followed through. Another variation is pawing without striking the ground.

    I know a commercial carriage horse who was always "raring to go" to work. He was very well trained and did not fidget or fuss at hitching time- but he expressed his anticipation by holding one front foot off the ground (and really tucked up) He had the self discipline to not paw- but that is obviously what he was thinkiing- "Let's get this show on the road!" As he looked eagerly ahead with his ears pricked- he was a perfect imitation of a pointing bird dog.


    • #3
      My OTTB always ate his feed with one foot up in the air and did it til the day he died at 16. No other vices though, except for wood chewing until we treated his ulcers.


      • #4
        We had a broodmare with the most wonderful personality that she passed on to all of her babies. However, this mare had one vice and that was to chronically paw while eating grain. She was on mats, so we never worried about it much. However, every single one of her foals would display a similar behavior except instead of pawing, they would hold a foot out and wave it in the air. We still have one of her first babies who is now 29 years old. To this day that "baby" mare waves her foot in the air during bucket feeding time - it's quite comical.

        I do think genes play a huge role in how vices can develop. It's been discussed on here many times as to how people feel a vice such as cribbing can develop - whether it's a learned or inherited trait. I think the propensity to develop it is definitely passed down through genes, and the right set of circumstances have to come along to bring it out full force. JMO
        Susan N.

        Don't get confused between my personality & my attitude. My personality is who I am, my attitude depends on who you are.


        • #5
          We had a pony mare that did that, from the day we got her to the day she left (2 yo - 9 yo) I knew she had previously been fed hay/grain in a group situation so I had thought maybe it had developed as a nervous type habit. This idea was also because I noticed that if she was eating alone off of a flake of hay she would NOT do it, but if another horse came along to share, she would start doing it. It was like she wanted to run the other horse off, but didn't.
          Even though we always fed pellets or soaked alfalfa cubes (a handful, mainly to get her 'vitamins' in her) in the stall individually, these must have been super-special treats because even without the threat of another horse she would do the leg up half-pawing behavior. Hers was mostly in the air, but she hit the ground enough that when we had dirt floors in the stall she did dig a little corner out of her stall.
          This pony mare didn't have any other vices... no stall walking, no weaving... just insane cuteness.
          IMO a behavior like this doesn't predict being better or worse at any discipline, it just means you want a rubber mat under their feed bucket


          • #6
            My Irish mare, within an hour of being BORN, had her face in her mother's feed tub and was pawing.

            So I'll go with "it's instinctive" since I highly doubt life had become too stressful for her in the space of 60 minutes.

            She still does it, but only every now and then. I also had her mother from age 4 off the track and she never pawed once.

            they say "a whorl in the middle of the forehead usually means this temperament"
            That's just superstition. Instinctive behaviors, even if they're poorly understood, are not in the same category.
            Click here before you buy.


            • #7
              Frustrating as heck when the paw or pose finally progresses to really bad table manners too.

              I have one arab cross mare that wanted to stick her foot in her feed as part of this ritual. Being so smart I bolted her feeder higher up. I spent the next week training her not to rear up to stick her stupid leg in the feeder. It did take some time to negotiate a feeding treaty with this girl. She now has a hooked feeder that she slides back a forth a rail. She is a most tidy eater now. Eat, slide,eat,slide back, eat slide, eat, slide back. When she is done with the last bit of feed she flips it off the rail....guess it is just in her way then and serves no purpose. :
              Most of the Morgan mares do best with cashel feedrite bags. Then they can nibble and walk and dink around without feed being spilled/dribbled.

              Some horses I think tend to almost get a high when they are thinking dinner is coming. Pawing and posing and in general full of antsies in the pantsies or deer in the headlights type euphoria. They say this is very true of metabolics (biochemistry and not instinctual influences I think).

              Maybe this is just an excuse...but all this talk about eating has me instinctively heading to the kitchen to nab the last brownie before the huby gets home! Nope that would be learn behavior I think...cuz it would never last long after he gets home for sure!


              • #8
                I have one that sometimes will hold up a front foot when eating. Sometimes the same behavior is exhibited in cross ties, when she really wants to just leave. Her offspring seldom show that behavior, but have learned to mimic other of her idiosyncrasies.
                Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

                Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


                • #9
                  I had an OTTB mare who did this also. She never pawed at the ground though. While she ate, she would really curl up one front leg or the other but put them down normally when she switched.

                  I called it "storking", since leggy birds often stand on one leg with the other one tucked up. She also had an obsession with licking things... anything, but especially metal surfaces. Always! Just assumed that was her crazy version of cribbing. She was a pitiful thing, really. Scared of EVERYTHING and missed out when the brains were being given out... Added up to a dangerous ride, but she was really sweet.

                  Interestingly, it seems MOST of the posts so far have been about mares... Wonder why? I have had 5 geldings since I had that mare. I have occasionally seen a couple of them hold up a foot while eating, but not often.
                  Fox Wood Farm


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Fox Wood Farm View Post
                    Interestingly, it seems MOST of the posts so far have been about mares... Wonder why? I have had 5 geldings since I had that mare. I have occasionally seen a couple of them hold up a foot while eating, but not often.
                    My first gelding Pepo would joyeously greet whomever was bringing his sack of fresh-cut grass dinner by sticking one leg straight out and pawing the air. It looked like an inverted 'come here' finger motion. Mano used to laugh and say it was Peep's way of saying "Give me dinner! Bring that here!". He didn't paw or wave while eating, just to get us to move faster with the food.
                    HAS provides hospital care to 340,000 people in Haiti's Artibonite Valley 24/7/365/earthquake/cholera/whatever.
                    www.hashaiti.org blog:http://hashaiti.org/blog


                    • #11
                      I have had 3 geldings that were/are "orchestra directors" whilst consuming grain . . . bred from the same mare.

                      The mare paws the ground to show her impatience at feeding time, but no foot waiving whist consuming feed.

                      I find it amusing, but not something I've worried about interpreting.


                      • #12
                        My gelding does this anytime he thinks he's being abused. Taking too long with food? Left foot goes up (and he curls his head towards it too). Taking a bath? Left foot goes up. Usually, it just stays there and he doesn't actually paw. When he does get pissy and paw, it's both feet. The pitiful thing is only the left. Whenever I move to a new barn, I have to warn them so they don't think he's injured.


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by deltawave View Post
                          My Irish mare, within an hour of being BORN, had her face in her mother's feed tub and was pawing.

                          So I'll go with "it's instinctive" since I highly doubt life had become too stressful for her in the space of 60 minutes.
                          You too huh? I don't think my foal did it that quickly, but he still does - learned it from mom. My other 2 never even remotely consider it.

                          The mare only does it while eating now if things were exciting on the trip into the barn. They come in for breakfast, then go back out, but if they got to running as they were coming in, she's more apt to do it while her head is in her bucket (and the bucket is on the ground, all of them are). She will sometimes do it if she's in her stall waiting for breakfast.

                          Her son still seems to view his meal as a novelty, and starts off nearly every breakfast with a foot hanging in the air. Usually about 1/2 way through all 4 go back on the ground He too will do it just while in the stall if he is anticipating something of excitement (which might just be a treat, but he hasn't learned yet that a leg in the air doesn't get him a treat )
                          The CoTH CYA - please consult w/your veterinarian under any and all circumstances. - ET


                          • #14
                            My friend has THE stereotype of a bitchy mare. Horse is a real pill.
                            When she gets agitated, the hoof goes up & she nods her head. Part of me feels bad for her b/c her nervousness comes from previous poor handling, but part of me thinks horse is just an ass pain. She is 1000x times better due to my friends heroic efforts, but she still gets nervous on occasion.

                            My mare started pawing on the ties one day & all I could think about was how much it irritates me when friend's mare does it. Arghhh


                            • #15
                              My friend has a young mare that holds her foot up as described while eating. She will occasionally switch feet too. She has no other vices that I know of. She competes her in CTR.
                              My DIL also has a mare that holds one foot up when she is anticipating something....She used to paw but after being trained that pawing wasn't allowed she merely holds her foot up, sometimes waving it about but she doesn't paw.
                              "My biggest fear is that when I die my husband is going to try to sell all my horses and tack for what I told him they cost."


                              • #16
                                Got a small horse/large pony gelding (grade) that holds his foot curled up to his girth while eating. Doesn't paw, just holds it there. And alternates when one leg gets tired holding up the other--LOL! We always thought it was a warning that he would strike if someone tried to steal his food. He came from a starvation situation and I'm sure the competition for food was fierce. But, from what I'm hearing from other posters, that's not necessarily why he does it. It's just a funny little quirk of his and we love him dearly, he's a very sweet and friendly horse, and low on the pecking order, although he does try his best to steal my big guys food when he finishes first.


                                • #17
                                  I always saw this as natural part of eating - a horse on the steppes paws up the grass for the tender bits as he eats, and paws through the snow to reach the grass. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what I always assumed.
                                  My warmbloods have actually drunk mulled wine in the past. Not today though. A drunk warmblood is a surly warmblood. - WildandWickedWarmbloods


                                  • #18
                                    I had a gelding that would wave his leg around while eating - when feeding grain dry, he would toss the bucket all around and shove grain up and out the sides with his nose, so I started soaking the grain. He quit making such a mess with my expensive grain and would stand there with his leg up in the air while he ate. Every time I'd dump his bucket, he'd stick his nose in it (without taking a bite!) and then look at me like "WTF did you do that for, lady?!". He ate the mush begrudgingly.