How To Control Food Aggressive Horses In PasturesBy Jeffrey Rolo
Note: If you haven't already read The Causes Of Horse Food Aggression, you might find it helpful to first scan that article before returning here.
As we learned in a previous article (linked in the paragraph above), a lack of respect for your authority is the number one catalyst for food aggressive horses. For this reason, you'll notice that all the recommended corrective actions listed in this article will focus on establishing your authority as the alpha leader. Once you are viewed as the superior, your horse will submit to your will and behave like a gentleman.
The Hay Musical Chairs Game
If you own multiple horses and they rely on flakes of hay when put out to pasture, be cautious: this scenario is how many cases of food aggression are born. Often time you'll notice that for the first few minutes of the feeding session the horses will almost play a game of musical chairs as the horses jockey for prime position and chase less dominant horses away from their piles. The driven-away horses then grab the abandoned pile, only to be chased away again. This process continues for a bit until they all finally grow bored of playing the game and just decide to eat.
Over time those lowest on the totem pole may direct their frustration towards you. If you have always stood firm and retained your alpha status over the entire herd with an iron grip, you'll be fine. But if you are a slightly meek or hesitant owner that avoids confrontation, there's a good chance you will eventually become the bullied party.
It's always more difficult to correct a negative behavior than it is to stop it from occurring in the first place, so here's a little tip: if you own multiple horses, try placing 1 or 2 extra piles of hay out in the pasture when you let them out. It won't always work, but it does go a long way towards eliminating the "musical chairs" game. The lowest horses on the totem pole then don't develop as much of a possessive streak towards food, and as a result chances are reduced for becoming food aggressive.
Habitual Owners Cause Predictable Problems
Humans and horses alike are creatures of habit. Most of us prefer to have defined roles and predictable processes. It just makes life easier when we know what to expect and when to expect it. But unfortunately predictability around horses can breed complacency on our part, resulting in a horse that increasingly tests his limits and becomes pushier around feeding time.
Staying alert to signs of testing your authority will certainly help nip food aggression or other bad habits in the bud, but what happens when it's too late and your horse now respects his food more than your authority? Aside from regular re-training and instilling the proper respect back into him over time, you should try to take your horse out of his comfort zone. Become unpredictable.
The number one mistake horse owners make when taking a food aggressive horse to or from pasture is being too regimented. They may take their horse out at 7:00 a.m. every morning and then return the horse back to the stall for dinner every night at 6:00.
Why is consistency such a bad thing? When being consistent in this manner, your horse's mindset towards food will shift from that of a privilege to that of a demand. I use the term privilege loosely, of course, since food is a necessity and a horse should never be starved, but providing proper care doesn't mean providing it on-demand.
When you provide food on-demand, and provide it irrespective of disrespectful behavior, what happens is you may create a horse that kicks the stall door if you're not outside at 7:00 on the button every morning, and paces the paddock gate and/or charges to the stall for his food the moment 6:00 draws near. Over time rather than be appreciative towards you for his food and care, he instead becomes angry if you don't dance to his specific tune. The roles in the relationship are now reversed.
If your horse becomes food anxious, start randomizing the times you take him out or bring him back in. Take him out and in multiple times during the day just for the heck of it – disassociate the act of being brought back to his stall with being fed. When he thinks you're going to bring him in for the night, consider giving him a bath instead or working him in a round pen. Basically, remove all predictability from the food process. While this won't solve food aggression in and of itself, it will help remove your horse from his comfort zone, thus shifting some of the authority back to you.
Know Your Enemy
No, your horse isn't the enemy, but his poor behavior is! A horse owner must adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards any negative behavior in order to ensure small challenges don't blossom into large ones, but this is even more critical when it comes to food aggression. Horses that show food anxiety and/or aggression require virtually perfect scrutiny and counter-reactions on the part of the handler, otherwise such aggression becomes vindicated in the form of the horse receiving exactly what he wanted.
Blindly entering into a battle of wills with an aggressive horse will not be terribly productive. It might help slightly, but there's more of a chance that you'll either spin your wheels or make matters worse. It's fine and well to respond to negative behavior, but knowing how to counter aggressive horse behavior is far more important.
But it's important to go beyond simple counter techniques; it's vital to learn all the elements of natural horsemanship. Natural horsemanship is not just a fancy term that describes specific groundwork exercises; it's learning a horse's body language and way of life so that you can mimic it and take the leadership position in the relationship in terms the horse can understand.
By knowing the meaning behind even the most subtle of their movements or body language, you'll be far more effective at distinguishing positive or negative behavior before it grows into something more difficult to manage.