Does your horse sometimes show aggression towards you or other horses at feeding time? Do they display a dominant attitude of ‘Give me my feed’, rushing towards you with their ears back and invading your space?
This is quite a common problem and can be, in part, traced back to a horse’s natural survival instinct to protect their food source. In the wild, a group of horses would have a hierarchical structure, with a dominant leader down to the weakest and younger animals. It is the leader’s right to be the first to eat and drink. This is not an issue if there is plenty of grazing, (or ad-lib hay in the case of domesticated horses) but if the food source is scarce they will display a certain amount of aggression towards those horses lower down the scale; biting, kicking, lunging at them.
It can be the same for the domesticated horse. A lot of people with horses in work feed their horses once or twice a day with a hard feed. The horse may start to view this feed as a scarce source of food as it is not readily available, and will therefore want to protect it. Aggressive behaviour will be rare if the horse sees you as the leader and is respectful of you, comfortable in their environment and doesn’t feel there is a threat of the food being taken away. However, if they view you as being lower down the social hierarchy, they are only going to do what comes naturally to them – lunge at you to get hold of the food and then bite or kick out in order to protect it.
As with all behavioural problems, it is important to notice the small signs so you can nip the problem in the bud. If your horse is losing respect for you at feed times, he will start laying his ears back as you come towards him or he may move forward and lunge towards the feed bowl and you will be unable to get him to step back.
If this is the case, what steps can you take to fix the problem? You need to start in a field rather than in a stable or tied up as a horse can become claustrophobic in these environments, which can also lead to aggression. Take the feed out to him along with whatever is necessary to chase him away, such as a rope or even an extra feeding bowl. I like to use a rubber feeding bowl because it won’t hurt him and it is the very thing that is causing his frustration. If your horse shows any sign of aggression when you approach with the feed, such as putting his ears back or lunging towards you, then chase him away down the field, doing whatever is necessary, even if it means throwing the rubber feed bowl in his direction (although not at him). Remember to always keep a safe distance when doing this, however. What you are doing is replicating the behaviour of the dominant horse in the herd and telling him to wait his turn to eat, so you have to mean it! You can tell when he has become submissive, rather than aggressive, when he turns to face you with his ears fixed on you. It is at this point that you should turn and walk away and leave him to eat. However, if he looks at you with his ears still laid back, you have not made him move enough and you need to immediately chase him away again. Remember, as soon as he turns to face you with his ears pricked forward, turn and walk away and let him eat. With repetition, your horse will soon learn to back off until you put the feed down.
Once you return to feeding tied up on the yard or in the stable, the same rules apply – feed only once your horse has turned to face you with his ears pricked forward and you have made him step back from you. However, it is also important to leave him well alone whilst he is eating and not have any other horses too near so that he doesn’t feel under threat. You could also reassess your feeding routines. For example, in a stable block you might try feeding the dominant horse first as this is what would happen in the wild.
Jason Webb at Australian Horsemanship specializes in starting young horses under saddle and finding the solutions to behavioural and ridden problems.
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