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