Food Aggressive Horses
In a horses life, food is one of the most important issues, and no matter how much you give them, they are always possessive about what they have. In order to keep their food to themselves, horses sometimes become aggressive. Most horses are merely food aggressive towards other horses, but there are horses that include the human in their herd, and become aggressive with their owner.
However, there are two kinds of aggressive: true aggressive, and false aggressive. It is important that you know which one your horse is doing before you try to correct the behavior or you and will make them worse.
This is usually the horse that pins its ears at feeding time. They usually pin their ears as you approach and often leave them pinned while being fed. This horse will usually let you feed them and pet them, while their ears are pinned. This is a false aggression.
I feel sorry for these horses. These are the horses at horse shows who are usually treated badly. Everyone labels them aggressive because they pin their ears as people walk by. Too bad, all the horse is doing is asking for food the only way it knows how, by begging everyone who passes by pinning its ears. As each person walks by and ignores the horse, or in some cases gets mad at the horse, the horse stands there confused unable to understand why the "trick" it has learned at home no longer works. So how was this "trick" learned?
In the case of the above, the horse has accidentally learned to ask for food by pinning its ears and is not actually being aggressive. It usually happens by accident and because the owner is in a hurry at feeding time they reinforce it everyday. It starts like this; the horse in the stall or in a paddock sees the food coming and pins its ears to warn other horses to stay away. They will do this even if the other horse is in another stall or in another paddock. It is just a natural reaction for some horses to let the other horses know they need to keep clear. At the same time as the ears are pinned, the owner throws the food. The horse says to itself, " wow, I just realized if I pin my ears they throw me food". The next day it happens again. Within two to three feedings the horse is convinced that pinning its ears does two things: keeps other horses away, and makes the food come through the feed window.
It is easy to identify this type of horse. They usually pin their ears at feeding time, and they usually don't care if you pet them or hang with them while they eat. You can usually take the food away without much fuss.
However, there is a huge problem coming for this horse and owner. This horse sometimes appears aggressive when they are not. This usually happens when the owner is standing with the food while chatting with someone, and not throwing it to the horse. As the horse waits with its ears pinned and nothing happens, it will sometimes make an aggressive move towards whoever has the food. Immediately, someone wants to punish the horse for its aggressive behavior and exclaim how nasty they have become. Not true.
What has actually happened is the same as you raising your voice to someone to get something done. The horse can not speak, so instead of raising its voice for emphasis, it raises its actions. In this case the horse pinned its ears and said "throw me my food please". When that did not happen, it then raised its voice and request by making a false lunge or snapping its teeth, stating in a more forceful way "stop ignoring me and throw me my food NOW". This is the same request a parent often has to make to a child to get them to clean their room, take out the garbage, make the bed etc.
You do not need to punish this horse. In fact , punishing this type of horse will make matters worse. You deal with this horse by simply changing its behavior by changing your behavior. Heres how: At feeding time you approach the stall with the horses food, if the horse pins its ears, you start backing up. As you back up you will notice the ears come forward. When they do, you approach again. As you get close if the ears go back, you simply back up until the ears are forward. Verbally praise your horse, and begin to approach again. If the ears stay forward give the horse the food, if the ears go back, you simply set the food down and leave the barn for 15 minutes. After fifteen minutes try the same technique. Approach and retreat, until the ears are forward. Most of the time it will only take a few attempts at this to change the behavior. If done right, I have never seen it take more than three feedings to make a major change. However, do be aware that there will come a time for you to drop the food to the horse, and they almost always pin their ears just as you let it fall. Don't worry about it. Don't go in and retrieve it, don't get mad. It will go away quickly enough.
Remember this; you or someone who owned the horse before you, accidentally taught them this False Aggressive behavior. It is up to you to train it back out of them.
This horse is different than the above horse and can actually be dangerous when you try to change its behavior. This horse wants its food and will go through you to get it. It will pin its ears and jam its head in the bucket (which is not the same as a horse who try's to poke its head into the bucket and is easily discouraged). This horse will also try and keep you away from its food if you try to take the food back from it. In some cases they bite, stomp their feet, and often will start to turn their butt to you. This is handled differently.
For a horse this aggressive I will take its feed outside and set it down. I will also take a lead rope, or lariat with me. I then stand over the food or very near it. If the horse approaches with pinned ears and a sour expression I will ask the horse to stay back buy swinging the lead rope, or lariat in an easy arc. This swinging is just to let the horse know I have it. If they continue with the expression, I swing it harder and go after them just enough to drive them away. Soon they will come back. If they have their ears forward and relaxed they get to continue in, but, if they have them pinned and are coming quickly then I get after them again. However, on this second time I will be slightly more aggressive about it. I will swing the rope faster and harder, and even advance on them. On this second approach I will swing the lead rope or lariat in a more threatening manner. When they have retreated I will then go back to stand guard over the food. I will continue this until the horse approaches with ears forward.
When the horse approaches with ears forward and more relaxed I gesture for the horse to stop a few feet away from the food. If they do, and are relaxed then I will move away from the food slowly and let them have it. If they start to pin their ears again as I move away, I softly and easily raise my lead rope as if I am going to swing it (but do not swing it), and if the ears come forward we are done. They get the idea.
But please notice I said raise the lead rope softly and easily. This is because they need to feel like you are warning them, and not attacking them. That is what they do to other horses, first they warn, then they go after. This scenario is different than when they were coming at you quickly and aggressively, and that is why you must not attack them or send them away harshly. They already came in respectfully, and stopped. Then, much like a child as you leave the room after a scolding, they want to get the last word in, so they pin their ears. All you need to do is a gentle reminder, hence raising the rope. If you whirl around and attack them or get mad at them they will feel like they have to defend themselves and may become even more aggressive.
Warning: Please be aware that dealing with a true aggressive horse can be dangerous and you do so completely at your own risk. I have seen some horses become quite hostile, and really press the attack, coming at me at full gallop and then slamming on the breaks, whirling and kicking. I have had others charge with teeth bared, and have had to get out of their way during that attack or risk being hurt (it doesn't mean they won if you have to move from the feed to keep from being kicked or bit, anymore than it means a boxer won a fight because his opponent is smart enough to dodge a punch). I have had them rear and strike. Some lessons have gone on for ten or more minutes before the horse finally gives up (which might not sound like a long time, but it will feel really long if you are in the "ring" with them). They will fight longer and harder if you "attack" them and attempt to punish them or get mad at them. If you are unsure of your ability to deal with this type of horse make sure you get professional help.
Copyright 2012 Scot Hansen and Horsethink