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.

Issues From The Ground: Trick Or Treat?

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Question Category: Issues from the Ground

Question: Why shouldn’t I give my horse hand-fed treats?

Answer: Training Tips: Trick or Treat?
By Julie Goodnight

Ground manners are critical in a horse of any age, for they indicate the horse’s respect for its handler. Many very capable riders have difficulties with rudeness from the horse on the ground. Sometimes this lack of respect and lack of recognition of you as the herd leader in your herd of two, is manifested by the horse spooking at every little thing.

Hand feeding treats to your horse is the quickest way I know to cause the horse to disrespect your space. Horses are only capable of horse behavior and the order of the herd is linear, each individual of the herd is either subordinate to or dominates every other individual. Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space (movement and actions) of the subordinate members and the resources of the herd (food and water). In your herd of two, how do you fit into the linear herd hierarchy? Set fundamental ground rules with every horse you deal with, it should be the number one commandment. Thou shall not ever move into my space. If you must give your horse treats, make him move out of your space or back up, look away or otherwise retreat from you before he gets the treat.

To improve your horse’s ground manners and respect, just treat your horse like a horse, it’s what he knows best. If you want to be in charge, you must control his space. Always. Whether at the hitching rail, tacking up, leading or feeding, you must always control the horse’s space and every move that he makes by communicating with your body language. You can work on these issues in the round pen, on a lead line or at liberty.

In the round pen you will learn to drive the horse away from you, control the speed of his feet and the direction of his turns. This is not easy if you are not used to using body language to communicate and can be hazardous if your horse is opposed to you becoming the herd leader.

At halter, work on smooth transitions from walk to trot to halt. Practice turnarounds, always turning the horse away from you, so he is moving out of your space. Practice backing the horse up and disengaging his hindquarters. Remember to cue with your body language. Show confidence and leadership with your eyes by looking where you want to go. Keep your hands and forearms well out in front of you so that your horse can use them as a guideline.

Time spent doing groundwork will never be wasted. Pay your dues on the ground and you’ll open new lines of trust, respect and communication with your horse.

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