Why are horses aggressive at feeding and what can you do about it?

Hand feeding a horse hayQuestion: My horse is mean at feeding time. She pins her ears back and lunges at the hay in my hands. Yesterday she bit me. I can’t even put grain in her stall any more without her attacking me. Help.

Answer from April Reeves, Horseman’s U.com: First, let’s understand the psychology behind why a horse reacts this way.

While it seems like a lack of manners (human explanation), it originates from the horse’s natural instincts and self-preservation. When all the food is gone, the horse does not know if and when the next meal will arrive. If he is behind a fence or locked in a stall, he now has to deal with not only the stress of having no food, but also the stress of how to get out to find more food.

Along you come, hay in hand, and nicely present it to the horse. This is how the human sees the picture.

Along you come, hay in hand – “I must grab it away from this lesser herd member as fast as I can, as I am the dominant herd member and control the food, and if they don’t surrender fast enough, I will have to bite and kick”. That is how the horse views the situation.

When you lay down feed in the horse’s space, you are surrendering your portion of the meal. Surrender in a horse’s world means that they are dominant and you are below on the pecking order. They don’t know you don’t eat hay. They only know that they do. So you, the human, begin a process of ‘training’ your horse (inadvertently) to display ‘bad manners’ (human explanation), dominance and aggression, by dropping the food as quickly as possible and getting out of the stall before you get killed.

So your problem is that you have surrendered your position of authority to your mare. What you need to do is re-establish the order.

Take a long crop with you into her stall, and a very small amount of grain in a small pail. As you enter, stay close to the door (as it may be an escape route if she turns to kick) and when she comes into your space, promptly use the crop on her chest or shoulder to get her to move back. Do it once and mean it. Don’t nag the horse. She may bolt back into the corner. She may barely move at all. If she doesn’t move, you nagged her. You need to get the message across clearly. Once she gets back, stand there quietly for a second or two, and put a small handful of grain in her bucket. Watch her feet and movements very closely, and when she barely begins to move up to eat it, bring the crop up to her eye level. Do not hit her with it. It is her warning to only approach when you are ready to leave the food. This is what a dominant herd member will do. They will eat their fill and leave the remainder to the herd, but until they are ready, they posture with their feet and head. Your crop is your extended foot.

Once she backs up the second time, and you wait another second or two, walk out and let her eat quietly. Once she is finished, take a few minutes and go back in and repeat. Do this a few times until she backs up when you enter with food. She may still pin her ears and look annoyed, but if she is surrendering to the aggressive ‘in your space’ attitude, that may be all you can expect from a mare, especially if she is older. Just remember that what you need to accomplish is that your mare displays subordinate behavior when you enter, and that she stays subordinate until you leave.

When I get a horse to consistently surrender, all I need to do from then on is to bring my hand up, and in a rhythmical motion, ask the horse to stay out of my space until I am ready to leave. If I find the horse gets pushy again, I will bring both hands up and move the horse back. You make yourself ‘bigger’ by doing this.

There are times when you just have to spank Fluffy, so don’t be too upset if this is what is asked of you. Horses are big animals with a great deal of power, and can do serious damage to a human. I have had clients get cornered by their horses, bitten and kicked multiple times before they escaped over the wall or through the door. Horses will attack each other with some pretty tough aggression, so a hard swat once in a while may be the only way to get the message across as one herd member to another.

Horses eat 24/7. They are on the move during this time, searching for food. We restrict both of these natural instincts, and then wonder why our horses react the way they do. In order to understand a horse, you must learn to think like one.

We really have no idea, for the most part, of the stress we put on our horses. Feeding is a basic need in all of us, yet we fail to realize how primitive our equine friends are when it comes to these needs. Perhaps in a few thousand years from now, the horse may be evolved enough to be able to make those judgments for himself, but today, it is up to us to keep his life balanced naturally, and stress free.

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