Mind Your Manners

Your actions may encourage your horse’s food aggressive behavior. Here's a horse-training tip to help:

Is your horse cranky at feed time? Does he pin his ears, bare his teeth and stomp his feet? Or worse, does he grab the hay out of your arms and shove you aside?

If your horse has bad manners at feed time, he might be displaying aggressive and dominant behavior because he thinks his actions are making you feed him, says AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight of Salida, Colorado. While this kind of behavior can be dangerous, it can also erode your authority with the horse and make him difficult to handle in other situations.

Horses establish dominance in the herd, in part, by controlling the feed. The dominant horse can take away the feed of a more subordinate horse. If your horse comes to believe his antics are making you surrender the feed to him, in his mind, that means he’s dominant, Julie says.

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“If your horse has bad feed-time manners, take a training flag with you and wave it at him. Once he backs up and looks at you with his ears forward, throw him the feed and walk away,” she says.

Horses develop this kind of bad behavior from anxiety over their feed and because they have been inadvertently rewarded for bad behavior, she explains.

In the wild, horses eat small amounts all day long, constantly roaming to find suitable forage. In domestication, we have confined horses and generally feed them in two rations of very concentrated feed, leaving them to go for long periods without eating. For this reason, horses can have a lot of anxiety around feed time.

“In acting out his anxiety, your horse one day arbitrarily displayed some emotional behavior, like pinning his ears or stomping his feet,” Julie says. “Then someone came along and fed him, and he made an association between his bad behavior and getting fed. So the next day, he tried it again, and lo and behold, he got fed again!

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“Remember, he doesn’t understand the human world and your plans and routine. He not only believes his antics are causing you to feed him, but he also thinks he’s taking the food away from you, and in his world, that makes him dominant.

“Whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release him (or reward him) is what you are training him to do. That’s why timing is such a critical part of horse training. If you just take a few moments to back the horse up and wait for him to display respectful behavior before giving him the feed, his bad manners will disappear, and he will become more respectful of you as his leader.”