What Causes Hind-Leg Stamping?

An owner seeks answers about her gelding’s puzzling behavior.
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An owner seeks answers about her gelding’s puzzling behavior.

Q My 17-year-old, sound Appaloosa sometimes kicks the ground with one of his hind legs while standing during grooming. He sometimes does this in his stall, too. He’s not bored, and I feel no heat or swelling in his legs. Why does he do this?

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Faith Friede, Idaho

A This behavior sounds like stamping rather than kicking. Some horses may stamp in irritation just prior to actually kicking, but your horse isn’t following through with a kick. Stamping could indicate irritation, pain, or boredom.

An easy first step is ruling out irritation from insects. Use a liberal amount of repellent, then watch to see if it helps. If the stamping continues, and if it’s done with only one hind leg, it’s likely caused by something else.

You mention that he’s sound with no heat or swelling in his legs. If he has a chronic condition, however, he could feel discomfort without any evident heat or swelling. It could seem counterintuitive to think he’s stamping a leg that hurts, but if the discomfort annoys him enough, it could drive him to do this. Many horses in their teens experience arthritis, and this could be uncomfortable enough for him to express it through stamping. A one-time low dose of phenylbutazone might relieve any discomfort just long enough to give you an indication as to whether the stamping is pain-related.

Even if it’s not discomfort in the stamping leg, his behavior could indicate pain somewhere else in his body. Many stabled horses, fed concentrated feeds and kept confined, can suffer from undiagnosed abdominal discomfort. A physical examination by a veterinarian would be a good step, in any case, to rule out pain.

Though you say he’s not bored, his stamping could in fact be boredom-related, depending on his stabling arrangement. Horses in nature spend 60 percent of their time grazing—they take a bite or two, take a step or two, and take another bite depending on how much forage is available. When we put them in stalls, we constrain that natural behavior, which can result in the horse’s expressing frustration in a variety of ways—some crib or chew, some weave, and some may stamp to express frustration. In this case, I think of stamping a hind leg as similar to pawing with a front leg to express impatience or frustration.

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You don’t say if your gelding spends all of his non-riding time in a stall or if he’s ever turned out. If he does get turnout time, is there grass and is he with other horses? It would be good to know if he stamps while turned out, while he’s able to graze, or while he’s able to socialize with other horses.

You mention that he stamps while being groomed. If he’s in crossties, which are another form of confinement, he could be venting that same frustration (see box).

Once a veterinarian has ruled out pain, try increasing your gelding’s turnout time, especially with the ability to graze and socialize with other horses.

Katherine Houpt, VMD, PHD, DACVB
Professor Emeritus, Cornell University