Controlling A Food Aggressive Horse In The Stall – Part 1By Jeffrey Rolo
Food aggression can be a pain in the neck to deal with anywhere, but a food aggressive horse is particularly challenging within a stall due to the limited space in which to maneuver. Owners of food aggressive horses are often hesitant to enter the stall when the horse is eating, for fear that the horse will bite, kick or shove them. In such a confined space, it's not sensible to enter the horse's realm.
And that last sentence is the crux of the problem: when a horse is food aggressive, we as handlers are allowing them to be by voluntarily ceding our own authority.
I fully understand that horses have size on their side, and it may seem downright foolhardy to have a confrontation in a confined space where the horse's size puts you at a disadvantage. But the reality is that if you ever expect to be an alpha leader, you have to convince the horse that he's living in your world. The horse stall is not his domain, it's yours.
If your horse is especially aggressive, or you believe you lack the confidence or skill to reclaim authority within the stall, it is probably best that you not follow the advice I will provide. Although few horses truly want a showdown, there is always a risk of injury when dealing with such a large and powerful animal. So you have to assess your personal situation and determine if it's worth re-training your aggressive horse, or perhaps giving up on him and/or seeking the aid of a professional trainer.
Here are some tips that will help you reclaim the authority within the horse stall:
Tip #1 – Randomize The Feeding Time
Often horse owners inadvertently connect the stall with feeding time by ensuring food is waiting in the feed bin when a horse is brought back from pasture. Instead, bring your horse into the stall when there isn't food around. Make him stand around and wait until you decide it's feeding time. Alone this won't solve the problem, but it does help him understand that food is not to be taken for granted; you control the distribution and decide if you wish to feed him.
Tip #2 – The Food Is Yours
It is important for a horse to understand that just because food is around them doesn't mean they get to eat it. The horse requires your permission to proceed, and you're not going to grant such permission until his demeanor is humble and reconciliatory.
When retraining a food aggressive horse, intentionally deny him the ability to eat his grain or pellets by controlling the bucket when his attitude is aggressive. This is sometimes easier to do initially outside the stall by hand (hold a bucket, or place it on the ground by your feet) so that you have some room to escape should things go south, but it can also be done inside the confines of a stall.
Only grant him permission to approach you and the food if his head is lowered and his ears are up. If he approaches you with tightened muscles and pinned ears, drive him away with a riding crop or whip. When he does approach you properly, allow him to eat, but continue standing there and if his ears start pinning back again or his body language gets aggressive once more, drive him off again. The battle isn't over when he approaches properly… the battle is over when he approaches and eats the contents of the grain bucket properly.
It may take a few trying days before your horse gets it through his head that any aggression exhibited towards you will only hurt himself, but once you cross that threshold you should be fine as long as you never allow him to regain authority.
Tip #3 – Get In His Space
Obviously I'm not suggesting that you start provoking your horse, but in order to establish the stall as your domain you are going to need to mimic the behavior of an alpha mare. An alpha mare will not ask a horse to move out of her way… she will demand it. The same must hold true for you.
One easy way of doing this is keeping your horse inside the stall when you muck it out each day. Due to the confined space, you will repeatedly need to make him move to other portions of the stall as you clean it out, plus you will be holding a rake in your hand that you can use as added reinforcement if he invades your personal space. It's a win-win.
Naturally it is not essential that you perform this exercise during stall mucking. You can certainly enter a stall at whim and decide to move your horse around it upon command. For me, the mucking process is just more efficient since it kills two birds with one stone.
Another related idea is to groom your horse inside his stall (if you don't already). My barn had cross-ties in both the halls and the stalls, so I could groom wherever I wanted. Grooming within the stall again reinforces that the stall isn't just a place for chow and relaxation – it can be a place of business if I so demand it.
The technique isn't what is important here; it's the practice that you should take home. By behaving as the aggressor within a stall and forcing him to move on your command, you're showing him that the stall, as everywhere else, is your domain and not his.
Tip #4 – Fight Aggression With Aggression
If you have read through other articles on AlphaHorse then you will know by now I'm a firm advocate for using the least amount of force necessary to achieve your goals. Force is no way to train a horse or establish a bond of trust.
That being said, even the kindest alpha leader must stand firm within the horse world if he is to be respected by his peers. Most of the time a horse will back down without the use of physical force, but if a horse escalates a confrontation to that point, you must not be afraid to take whatever action is necessary even if it means a solid thwack to the head or a knee/kick to the underbelly. I know such words would make any responsible horseman flinch instinctively, but the good news is that the need to escalate things to such a level is typically pretty uncommon.
Should physical retaliation be necessary, use common sense. You want to get a horse's attention and respect, but you don't want to inflict wounds or harm as that would be unnecessary and counterproductive. Smacking a horse hard with a riding crop won't cause injury – taking a 2-by-4 to him would. Smacking a horse across his lower jaw with an open hand won't cause injury – using a closed fist, while unlikely, could depending on where it lands.
Horses are prey animals, which means very, very few of them truly want to see a battle through to the end. Physical retaliation isn't about inflicting damage or serious pain… it's about showing the horse that you will not back down, and posing the infamous Dirty Harry question to them: "Do you feel lucky, punk?" In 9 times out of 10, the horse's answer will most assuredly be no and he'll back down or retreat.
In the second part of this article we will look at more ways to control an aggressive horse while in the stall.