Feeding Transitions in the Spring

My horses claim about 10 of our 15 acres of land, which you’d think would be plenty for half a dozen horses. Our house, barns, arenas, offices, and a warehouse are squeezed into a corner of the property and the rest of the place is procured and manicured just for the horses.

We have about 10 irrigated acres, which is like Park Avenue real estate in the West. But living in the high mountain desert as we do—even with irrigation water—it’s only enough pasture for what I fondly refer to as “recreational grazing.” (Meaning, it doesn’t help my hay bill much, but it sure makes the horses happy!)

Winters are long and hard here in the Rocky Mountains and the grass only grows from April through August. The rest of the year it is decidedly brown. Keeping the grass green is a challenge in this climate and horses are sure hard on the land. Keeping the horses healthy while eating that green grass is also a challenge and a labor of love. Come springtime, managing the pasture for the health of the fields while transitioning our horse’s diet from hay to green grass, without stressing their digestive health, requires some serious planning, as well as detailed execution.


Baby Grass is Delicate

Horses’ teeth and hooves are not. While we may turn our horses out in the fields late in the winter before any new growth starts, and let them browse the dead grass, at the first sign of green shoots, the horses are eighty-sixed from the pastures. For the next month at least, until we can see the first signs of seed heads on the short grasses, we keep the horses totally off the fields. This allows a good head of growth in the pastures and will establish the grass for the whole summer. Horses will paw and dig and gnaw for the first delectable shoots of green grass and they are incredibly damaging to young grass. Keeping them off the fields early on makes the grazing last longer at the other end of the summer.


Over-eaters Anonymous

Once the grass is healthy and ready for grazing, our focus shifts to managing the change in the horses’ diets from dry hay (almost a year old by now) to fresh green grass. Between over-eating and the drastic change to the horses’ delicate digestive balance, it pays to be very, very careful. My horses have access to an all-you-can-eat grass hay buffet, open 24/7. That way their digestive tract is always full—the way nature intended.

When I am ready to start turning them out to the pasture, I wait until late in the day, when their bellies are already full and when the sugar content is low in the green grass. Our horses are programmed to come in the barn at night, so we’ll turn them out an hour before their bedtime. That way they only eat a bit and then they’re ready to come in at the normal time.

Over the next 3-4 weeks, we’ll turn them out a few minutes earlier each day, as they gradually shift from mostly hay to mostly green grass diets. In colder climates like ours, early morning grasses can be hazardous to horses with metabolic issues, so in the spring and early summer, we avoid letting the horses into the fields before mid-day. During this time of transition, we are watching the horses closely for over-eating—as some will do—especially when they have been deprived of the delicacy for so long.

We also keep the horses on heavier than normal doses of Proviable, a pro- and pre-biotic. This helps stabilize their digestive tract and is especially important when horses are undergoing any kind of stress—whether it is a change of diet or a road trip or arduous training.

Since our horses are all in training—worked or exercised on a daily basis—I don’t really have any concerns about obesity. I find my horses are so much healthier and content when they have 24/7 access to a low-protein grass hay. While some horses might put on a little extra weight in the beginning, once they realize the food will always be there they slow their eating way down and go back to a healthier weight. As they switch to more and more green grass the horses will definitely put on a few pounds, but they also get a sheen to their coats and are happier.

In nature, horses put on weight in the summer when the foraging is better, then they lose weight over the winter when it’s slim picking. Their biology is designed this way and this cycle triggers other things like shedding and ovulation. I want my horses to lose weight over the winter and put it back on in the summer. Some horses have major health issues related to obesity because they put on more weight every summer but never lose it in the winter. Consequently, they get fatter and fatter every year. The easiest time to get the weight off a horse is in the winter.


Keeping it Green

Our pastures require a fair amount of maintenance during the spring and summer. Early in the spring, before the grass starts growing, we drag/harrow the fields, to break up the manure clumps and pull out some of the thatch (and every five years or so the fields need to be burned off to get rid of the thick thatch). Since we spread the manure from the stalls and paddocks in the fields, the harrow helps break it up, providing a smooth layer of fertilizer to the grass. Recycling manure is great for the growth of the grass; adding a commercial fertilizer is even better, but much more costly.

We start irrigating the pastures as soon as the snow melt starts and the ditches are running. We use flood irrigation—a manual process that involves damming the ditch and flooding the fields with water. We only have access to the water on certain days (since we share it with others), so our whole lives tend to revolve around irrigation days. Water is a big deal in the West; water rights are very valuable and never taken for granted. We have to work the water through the fields to make sure every nook and cranny is covered; the water is far too precious to waste even a gallon.

We also mow our fields once or twice during the summer. Horses are very particular about the actual plants they eat, selecting the tender sweet grass and leaving the weeds and other kinds of grasses. By mowing (with the blades set as high as they go) we chop off the weeds before they seed and the grass gets stronger. When you mow grass before it seeds out, it grows even harder, trying to get to seed. Keeping our fields mowed improves the growth and quality of the grass while discouraging the weeds.


A Labor of Love

Maintaining the pastures is a lot of work, but like most things in life, if it’s important to you it’s worth working for. Seeing the horses content in the field, basking in the sun and picking and sorting through the plants to find their little treasures more than makes up for the work we put into it. Seeing the shine and dapples in their coat that only green grass gives a horse pleases my eye and puts a smile on my face.

There’s a reason why horse enthusiasts tend to be hard workers—it takes a lot of effort to keep horses happy and healthy! But the end result makes me forget about the extra work and gives me the satisfaction of doing the best I can do for both the horses and the land.

Enjoy the ride!
Julie Goodnight

Feed-Time Aggression Q & A

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Julie Goodnight Q&A
Feed-Time Aggression; Maintaining the Right Lead

Q: Why do some horses feel threatened when it comes to their food, and in return behave in an aggressive way at meal times? What can I do to prevent food-time aggression and stay safe at feeding time? –Chloe Martin

A: A horse’s aggression at feed time may be as major as pinning his ears, baring his teeth and charging you or as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for the moment! When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd, they show they are dominant by controlling space and controlling resources. The resources are food, water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is often simultaneously invading your space and taking away the food. That’s his way to control space and resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know the difference between horse food and people food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he wants it and he can take it from you.

Why does your horse think he’s dominant over you? Hand feeding treats can lead to the horse thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food from your hand. He also learns that by pushing into you he can control where you stand and where you’ll go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in the past; it becomes worse over time. Sometimes aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature intended) there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when the next meals comes.

Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting out, like pawing, pinning the ears or baring teeth, then when the feeder dumps the hay in, the horse comes to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it is as if he intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so his aggressive gestures were rewarded.

There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group and only feeding twice a day—horses may be worried about getting their food and also worried if another horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the herd and the limited food resource—may make the horses aggressive toward one another and just agitated to anyone present at feed time. That kind of stress in addition to only being fed twice a day causes a competition for the food. In that case, I would recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the competition for food. Or feed more often. Giving horses free access to hay 24 days, seven days a week will virtually eliminate all food aggression.

If a horse is acting out against you as you bring the food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a flag whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then look forward at you to see what is going to happen next. While his ears are forward and after he has backed up, drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that way. Make sure you have a flag or stick to make sure you can defend yourself.

Remember, he doesn’t have to act well for long—just has to be acting right at the moment you feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the other horses eat—they get to eat when she walks away from the food.

Feed-Time Aggression Fix Q & A

Feed-Time Aggression Fix
Q: Help! What do I do, my horses are crowding me when I go into their pen to feed them and it’s just scary to have them so close and on top of me. Plus, I want my husband to help with feeding, but having the horses so pushy and not allowing you space to get from the gate to their feeders is making him too scared to help with chores. What do I do? —Kate Brenday, Alabama
Julie’s Answer: Entering a pen full of horses, even just to catch one can be quite risky and at feed time, it can get really dangerous! You are smart to be afraid– interactions between dominant horses and their subordinates can be lightning quick and very violent and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that. Often, with large groups of horses, the herd dynamics escalate fast and the horse that is trying to get away from another aggressive horse can easily run right over the top of you.

Not only that, but one way in which horses establish dominance in the herd is to take away food from other horses, so food aggression is common, especially if the horses are only fed once or twice a day and go stretches with no food. If you walk into a pen full of horses with feed and they are crowding you and trying to attack the food, it is incredibly dangerous and your horses have no manners and little regard for your authority or well-being.

Sometimes unsafe food-based aggressive behaviors can develop even if you don’t go into the pen with the horses to feed them. Often handlers will ignore the aggressive gestures of the stressed-out horse and drop the feed over the fence into the pen, but the horse comes to believe his gestures are making you give him the food so the same sense of dominance and rude behavior may develop in the horse.

I am very particular about how my horses behave at feed time since it is such a contentious issue and relates to dominance and therefore aggression. Whether my horses are being fed individually or in a group, I expect them to back away from me as I feed and watch patiently wait for me to set the feed down and they should not approach until I indicate that it is okay, by walking away from the feed. Crowding, rushing, vying for position or trying to take the feed out of my hands is absolutely not allowed because I do not want that to become their habitual behavior.

Along the same lines, I’ve seen some boarding situations where horses are kept in large groups and may be rowdy or jealous or jockeying for position when you go into the pen to catch your own horse, outside of feed time. When I walk into a group of horses, with feed or without, I like to be well-equipped to deal with fractious horses, should the herd dynamic get rowdy and I expect all the horses in the pen to show some deference toward me (“Better be careful, the boss is here!”).

My tool of choice for keeping this kind of order in the pen would be a flag. The 4’ long rigid stick with a nylon flag on the end allows you to wave the flag as hard as needed to get the horses attention and should a horse come close enough to endanger me, I can tap him with it to get him out of my space. Because horses are flight animals and highly sensitive to all sensory input, the sound, color and movement of the flag makes it an excellent attention getting device, even when the horses are getting wild.

For safety reasons, we try to limit the situations where you have to walk into a pen full of horses with feed—either by laying out the feed before the horses are turned-out, or while they are out of the pen or stall or by putting it over the fence. But I realize in some situations you may have to enter the pen with the feed; and in these cases I would always carry a flag, especially if it is a group pen.

When I hire new people on my barn staff, no matter their experience level, we always discuss feed-time behavior and how important it is to not allow horses to rush you or act aggressively when you feed. If the new-hire has little experience or a lack of confidence, I make sure they carry a flag and see how easy it is to keep the horses back and acting respectful.

Around my farm, we have quite a few flags, strategically located to be handy when you need them. I’ve found that if a person has to go all the way back to the tack room and rummage through the bin for a flag, they won’t do it. But if the flag is handy—hanging on the gate where it’s needed, it will get a lot more use.

There’s one in each horse trailer I own (to help with trailer loading if needed); one in the indoor arena for groundwork; one on the round pen gate and one on the gate that leads to the big turn-out pen. They hold up well to weather although the flags will deteriorate over time if they are in direct sun—like the one on my round pen. After 6-7 years, I may have to replace the flag (the stick holds up fine) but I figure that is a very small price to pay for that many years of convenience.

I’d suggest you get a flag or two and wave it vehemently at your horses when you approach their pen with the feed. Cause them to back off and pay close attention to you and only let them approach the feed after you have relinquished it and are ready to walk away. You don’t have to make them wait forever—just make them back off a little, then they will turn and look at you to see what is going to happen next. If you walk away while the horse is looking at you and before he approaches, he will learn to be patient and respectful.

It shouldn’t take long for you to teach your horses some safer feed-time manners; when the feed is used to reinforce the right behaviors, they will learn the right things quickly. Then you can give your husband the flag and show him how safe and easy it is to control your horses with the right tool in hand.

Good luck and be safe!

Feeding Frenzy

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Dear Julie,
I have just taken in two mares, ages 27 and 20. Both were well trained as performance horses in their youth, but have recently been neglected and poorly fed (pastured on 140 acres and left to fend for themselves). The older mare is smaller, but is the alpha. She’s very skinny right now. At feeding time she becomes aggressive toward the younger mare—charging around her feeding area. The two mares are in separate areas, but the older mare is out of control until there’s something in her bucket. When she has her food, she settles down for a bit. Then when she’s finished, she attempts to ram into the other feeding area and to make the other mare (who’s a much slower eater) nervously leave her food.
Fed Up, via e-mail

Dear Fed Up,

Feeding is an anxious time for domesticated horses–food is a resource that determines which horses are dominant in the herd. If your horses have been recently deprived of food, their anxiety over feed is probably even greater than usual—and much greater than it would have been in the wild.

To illustrate the point a little more, let’s look at how horses act in the wild and how those conditions change in our pastures and paddocks. In the wild, horses eat all the time–grazing up to 20 hours a day. They eat a little and walk a little and will sometimes cover as much as 20 miles in a day to find good forage and water. In domestication and confinement we have drastically changed these eating habits to give them two lump sums of very rich food. Domesticated horses typically gobble up their rations in an hour or less, leaving the rest of the day to stand around and wonder when they get to eat again. Horses can get very frustrated and anxious at feed time because they have gone so long without eating and because the food comes to them without them having to work to get it. This explains why bad behaviors tend to develop around feed time.

Your older mare is probably reacting to this natural feed-time stress. Her dominance and recent deprivation are likely compounding to create very visible and agitated behaviors. Aggression at feed time is often related to dominant behavior. The dominant horse in the herd controls the resources of the herd (food, water, shelter) and even the other horses. Controlling the resources of the herd is one of two major factors that determine a horse’s dominance (the other factor is controlling the space of the subordinate horse).

At feeding time, when a horse displays aggressive behavior, it is in an attempt to take away the food from a subordinate and thus reinstate her own dominance. Horse owners often train horses to be dominant and aggressive at feed time by feeding a horse when she is displaying aggressive behavior. In the horse’s mind, she thinks she took the food away from you and therefore you must be subordinate. (Tip: this is why hand feeding treats isn’t a good idea. See Communicating Clearly with Julie Goodnight “Paw Power” in the previous issue.)

At my ranch, the feeders are under strict orders not to feed any horse that is displaying aggressive or unwanted behavior. When the feeders are approaching the pens or stalls with feed, the horses are expected to back up and wait patiently and politely for their food. If we have a horse that is displaying aggressive behavior, we will use a stick or rope to wave at the horse and back him away from the food. Once the horse has backed-off and is showing respectful behavior, we will drop the feed in and walk away. This insures that the horse does not think he is taking away the food from you and keeps him in a subordinate frame of mind.

In your situation, your older mare is frantic because the natural order is upset. If she is dominant, she should be eating first. That is a fundamental rule of herd behavior. I would suggest that you separate the horses even more. Make sure they can’t see each other while eating. Also make sure to feed the more dominant horse first. You’ll be respecting the horse’s natural behavior and herd instincts.

To recap: make sure your horse’s aggressive antics aren’t aimed at you and that she doesn’t think she is taking away food from you. Second, do not reward the horse with feed when she is displaying unwanted behavior. Be patient and wait until she is acting in a desirable way and then give her the feed.

Until next time,
Julie Goodnight