Kjartan's Pawing Pattern

by Allison Brunelli

Kjartan’s unrefined pawing behavior in Trailer Loading Lesson Four inspired a spontaneous nickname: Hurricane Kjartan. He loaded, tied, stood calmly for a while, but then he pawed with an ear-smacking power. He pawed with such force, he ultimately stripped the padded liner away from the trailer wall.  When our Trainer from Breakaway Farms, Ashlin Bowen, and I dropped the doors to unload him, the firm liner, once hanging vertically, lay at his feet in a listless rubber heap.

That was Lesson Four but in Lesson Five, Kjartan made a comeback in the vein of a valedictorian.  He loaded easily, tied easily, hardly pawed. He even self-backed out the narrow side opening using only the quiet aids provided by Ashlin to support him — something young horses his age aren’t expected to be able to do.

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“That was an advanced unload,” Ashlin said grinning. “A horse isn’t expected of this until he’s more experienced.” I immediately forgot about the costly incidental in Lesson Four, and let the nickname dissolve. 

As I looked back at Kjartan’s summer lessons, I saw a pattern.  When Kjartan blew it in a lesson, he managed to come back strong in the next. As I looked deeper, I noticed a second one involving Kjartan’s pawing. When he paws it usually goes something like this:  

ï    He paws when he is contained or restrained like he’s tied or cross-tied and he can’t see something or be a part of something that stresses him, excites him, makes him curious, or frustrates him.

ï    He paws through his entire shoulder, up through his chest and out through his legs in a big arch with an extended reach. His pawing reminds me of the arm and barrel of twenty-five thousand pound excavator at work. When I’m standing right next him when he paws, I can feel an enormous expression of energy trying to come out.

ï    He slaps his hoof down on the ground with an emphasis, causing me to pause and wonder what swell of emotion is exactly happening on the inside of his mind, spirit and or body.

Kjartan is a very social horse who loves to be with other horses. And he’s a pawer. He paws inside the trailer as well as outside the trailer. He paws while cross-tied in a box stall near the indoor arena. This pawing usually starts when he catches a glimpse of other horses walking around the arena, leaving the arena or standing inside the arena. I sense the crosstie restrictions frustrate him. He wants be a part of the other horses’ fun. Twice he pawed while inside the arena, staring at his own reflection in the arena mirrors. In these instances he started pawing after he rubbed his nose against the mirror against his own image. I sensed a curiosity for what appeared to be another horse, and then frustration or confusion over why that horse didn’t respond like he thought it might.



Kjartan’s pawing patterns trigger the spawning of another pattern: a pattern of thoughts I had about his pawing pattern. When I see Kjartan paw, my thoughts usually go like this:  

ï    “Oh man, that needs ground manner tempering” (and then I lightly tap his knees with the end of my whip to which he then politely stops and I praise him).  

ï    “Wow, that’s big.  What is that and where does it come from?”

ï    “Oh man, yeah, you need to temper that, but temper it right. Don’t attach something negative to it, as it could defeat your training goals. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, says Aristotle.  That shoulder reach has the potential of being beautiful inside and out, the outward expression of his inner joy in his future training in walk, trot and canter.”

I’m not accustomed to owning a young horse who prefers to paw, so one day while I was at the barn I approached Ashlin about Kjartan’s pawing in an effort to gain some educational feedback. “Did you see how high Kjartan raises his legs when he paws and is that normal?” I asked her.

“Yes, the young horses can be really supple,” she replied. Ashlin’s mention of suppleness caused me to really appreciate the gift of suppleness Kjartan has been blessed with, a horse I bought at age 5 weeks old and had no idea what qualities he’d end up with. As an educated horse owner who has spent many years in training circles, I’ve seen how quickly suppleness can be destroyed. Ashlin’s mention of suppleness bolstered my already firm desire to care for Kjartan with an emphasis on relaxation and suppleness that will increase his ability to perform and the quality of his life.

Later, over the phone, I approached my other coach for more feedback. “What do you think about Kjartan’s pawing?” I asked Leah Taylor.  Leah teaches Therapeutic Touch and Strength Building for all disciplines and while she’s never seen Kjartan in person she did see the photo I took of him pawing at his reflection. Her feedback took my thoughts down a different path, in a good way, a wonderful supplement to Ashlin’s.

“When a horse lifts his shoulder like that it means he has an elevated amount of energy in his shoulder,” said Leah.  “You can think of it as a buildup of energy stuck in that particular area of his body. Energy gets stuck in different areas in a horse’s body and those areas get tight because of it. All horses need to release their tightness. Short backed horses with tightness in their backs often need to buck. Those with tension in their neck and shoulders many-times release their tightness by lengthening their necks in a snake-like manner.”

Leah has studied horsemanship by Tom and Bill Dorrance and Buck Brannaman* and fills her training sessions with detailed observations. She recommended I come to know Kjartan's body and his body language well. “There is a connection between a horse’s build up of energy and its behavior and performance. Your observations and any patterns you see will valuable throughout your partnership with him. Knowing him, knowing his tightness and knowing his patterns means you’ll have valuable insight to support him through his training. Figure out those connections. Horse’s don't do anything by accident.”

Absorbing Leah and Ashlin’s feedback gave greater perspective and more substance to my observations and equine education. There’s something there, inside those shoulder’s of Kjartan’s; and I bet I’ll see whatever it is as well as how it wants to reveal itself in training.  I’m hoping that as his training rolls out, his shoulders will grow to love the freedom I give them as I strive toward the mindful, classical development of his mind, body, spirit and gaits.


In Allison’s next article she will write about Kjartan’s lesson in trailer loading with her other horse Contigo. She is an avid equestrian, hairstylist, and the founder of StretchEquine.com where she helps bring awareness and prevention of Kissing Spines to equestrian communities. Kissing Spines is an injury of the equine back caused by ill-fitting saddles and incorrect training where a horse was trained tense and hollow. It is increasingly common, represents a misunderstanding of the support horses need in training, and can be remedied through relaxation and proper core engagement.

*Tom and Bill Dorrance and Buck Brannaman are leading practitioners of horse training. Their philosophy around handling horses is based on classical concepts, emphasizing "feel" of the horse and observation of its responses to the handler.  They were known for working with the horse's nature, using an understanding of how horses think and communicate. They train the horse to accept humans and work confidently and responsively with them. One of Brannaman's stated goals is to make the animal feel safe and secure around humans so that the horse and rider can achieve a true union.