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The Causes Of Horse Food Aggression

By Jeffrey Rolo

Food aggressive horses have a knack for causing their owners endless daily doses of frustration, and if not dealt with carefully these horses can also inflict significant physical injury to their owners or companions. As such, it's important to always be on the lookout for signs of horse food aggression, and if any such signs are detected, they must be dealt with quickly and firmly before they are allowed to fester and grow steadily worse.

As with most negative horse behaviors, a handler should attempt to determine the root cause of the food aggression. Although there are standard corrective actions to perform with a food aggressive horse, knowing the root cause of the food aggression can help you target the problem more precisely. For that reason, before we discuss how to control a food aggressive horse, we will first look at the common causes of horse food aggression.

Cause #1 – Prior Starvation And/Or Abuse

Not all horses are blessed with happy homes, and although adopting a previously abused horse can provide that horse a second shot at life, all abused horses come packaged with plenty of emotional baggage. Sometimes this baggage is light and barely perceptible, other times it is exhibited through dangerous behavior such as aggression.

In nature, horses have no limits to how much they can graze, and as such food aggression is typically not a natural trait within a herd. Alphas may jockey for position or chase brash youngsters around from time to time, but it typically has nothing to do with food aggression, but rather maintaining the pecking order of the herd.

That all changes when a horse is denied ample quantities of food. If the lack of adequate food is severe or long-lasting, a horse's defense mechanism will kick in and they may start defending their food fiercely. They need to… after all, they don't necessarily know where or when their next meal may come.

It's similar to how many Americans that survived the Great Depression reacted. Denied the certainty of economic prosperity for such a prolonged period, many among that generation held onto their frugal ways for the rest of their lives, even during the boom times of the 50's and 80's. It mentally scarred them, and influenced their behavior forevermore.

The same behavioral defense mechanism exists within horses. Even though a previously abused horse may now be in a home which will always offer ample quantities of food, the psychological scarring is long-lasting and their first instinct will to be always jealously protect any food source.

Cause #2 – Herd Denial

Sometimes it stinks to be the low man on the totem pole, and a horse would tell you the same. In limitless pastures, when an alpha mare chases the low man away from her prime feeding spot, that horse can find plenty of alternative grazing spots. In a domesticated situation, this may not be true. The pasture area might not be sufficiently grassy year round, or the herd might be in a paddock or arena where only flakes of hay are available rather than natural roughage.

In such cases, the horses lowest in the pecking order may be denied ample food, and they may have to fight for whatever scraps they can get. This is a perfect trigger for food aggression. Knowing that they cannot control the herd or defy the alpha's wishes, these lower-ranked horses may take their frustrations out on you if they feel that you are submissive. And since the sight of a charging horse can intimidate even the strongest of horsemen, there's a good chance their bully tactics will work.

Cause #3 – Master Of The Stall

Horse domestication is perfectly healthy, but it does alter the "rules of the game" at times. In nature, there is no such thing as stalls, and there really aren't personal spaces to worry about (beyond not getting too close to an alpha horse without permission).

Most domesticated horses are given a stall to reside in, either during nights or 24/7 at will. Over time, if you are not careful to always assert your authority, a domesticated horse may eventually see the stall as being his space, rather than yours. This can eventually lead to disrespectful behavior or food aggression. After all, you're in his territory now, so you'll defer to his wishes. And if he wants to eat (and horses almost always do!), then he'll be darned if he lets you get in his way.

Cause #4 – You Are Not Worthy

This has already been touched upon in #2 and #3, but I'm giving it its own section because respect is so important. Putting aside severely scarred horses that have been victims of starvation in the past, the most common reason for horse food aggression is a lack of respect for the handler. Some of the circumstances may differ, but disrespect is the glue that holds all the different scenarios together.

Don't make the error of believing that a horse that enjoys your company also respects you. The two are entirely different, and it's respect – not enjoyment – that will help you conquer food aggression.

So now that we have looked at some of the main causes of horse food aggression, let's move on to the methods you can use to minimize and/or eliminate this distasteful behavior: How To Control Food Aggressive Horses In Pastures and Controlling A Food Aggressive Horse In The Stall.

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