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The Food Anxious Horse: Recognize The Signs

By Jeffrey Rolo

Food anxiety and/or food aggression, if left unchecked over time, can shift the role of alpha leader from you to your horse, cause you endless frustrations, and even place you at risk of being bullied or injured by your horse. Although imbedded cases of food aggression are painfully obvious to the handler and nearby observers, it's the first starting signs that are all-too-easy for us to miss. And these initial signs, if left unchecked, can cause a food anxious horse to bloom into full aggression during feeding time.

Since often personal examples provide the best illustration, I'll quickly provide two of my own before offering some basic advice on what not to do around a food anxious horse.

When I was a young kid my mother owned a horse that was really perfect in almost every way. She was a great riding horse, she was smart as a whip, and she enjoyed a good relationship with my mom. Oh yes… and she loved apples. She REALLY loved apples.

Over time what was once considered a treat transitioned into an expectation. Rather than be gracious about receiving an apple, the mare soon expected them, and demanded they be supplied on her timeline and terms. Well, one day my mom didn't feed an apple quickly enough to please her, so she nipped her owner. End result? A hearty smack, a verbal scolding, and no more apples that day.

That was the only time that mare ever nipped her owner, and from that day forward she behaved like a perfect lady. My mom's mistake? Not recognizing the early signs of food aggression. She felt it was perfectly natural for a horse to become eager for an apple, so when gratitude slowly transitioned to expectant, she didn't reverse that course quickly enough. But once the mare stepped too far, she responded with the strength of an alpha leader and regained the leadership role from that day forward.

When I was a teen I too made a similar mistake. I owned a very strong-willed Thoroughbred mare, and each evening we would head to her stall for the night with grain bucket in hand. Initially she walked by my side, respecting my personal space. Over time she would start to nudge the bucket lightly and perhaps even sneak a bite of grain before we got to the stall. No big deal, I told myself. It's perfectly natural for a horse to look forward to eating her grain, after all.

Over time these nudges became stronger, and the sneaked bites more aggressive. Soon I needed to cling to that bucket as fiercely as a baseball player clings to his bat! And then one day it happened: I wasn't moving to her stall fast enough for her tastes and she nipped me good on the forearm. End result? A strong smack, a verbal barrage, and I even chased her around the field a bit. Oh… no grain that night either. From that day forward, she never bit me again.

I made the same mistake as my mother many years earlier. Initially I felt it just wasn't a big deal if my mare was excited about eating – it was perfectly natural. But I didn't realize that by compromising and encouraging her initial food anxiety, I was allowing her to lose respect for my authority and encouraging her behavior to segue into full-blown food aggression. Luckily my reaction was strong enough to reassert control of our relationship in a single day, but from that day forward I was much more wary about maintaining personal space, and ensuring that I behaved like an alpha leader should.

Some signs of food anxiety are:

bulletNudging a grain bucket, or pushing you forward towards the final destination.
bulletPinning the ears back slightly or behaving in an impatient and/or agitated manner.
bulletPacing back and forth around the exit gate of a pasture around feeding time. Or kicking the exit door.
bulletSneaking bites of food before officially being given permission to do so.
bulletPushing you away from the grain bin with her body once she is in her feeding area.
bulletTurning her hindquarters towards you, either to block you from approaching the feed bin or to aggressively suggest you keep your space.

When you observe the above signs, or any signs similar to them, it's important that you try not to make the same mistake that so many of us horsemen do when we first get started: underestimating the initial signs of food anxiety. It's not cute, it's not natural, and it's not harmless. When allowed to continue unchecked, it will deteriorate your authority and worsen his behavior.

If you're not certain of how to handle cases of food aggression, particularly those that have already imbedded themselves deeply, articles such as Controlling A Food Aggressive Horse In The Stall and/or Leading A Food Aggressive Horse may prove useful.

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