Leading A Food Aggressive HorseBy Jeffrey Rolo
Bringing a food aggressive horse either in or out to pasture can be a hazardous exercise in frustration. Depending on the severity of the food aggression, your horse may attempt charge ahead and drag you, push you off to the side, kick you, nip at you, or in extreme cases even rear.
Although there are some temporary corrective actions that you can perform to control or minimize these defiant outbursts, the only long-term corrective action that will work is a rigorous and consistent regimen of natural horsemanship that will both establish you as the alpha leader as well as encourage good ground manners. Since this article is narrowly focused on leading food aggressive horses I won't discuss natural horsemanship ground techniques in detail in this article – you can find this type of advice elsewhere on AlphaHorse. Just bear in mind while reading the rest of this series that these pieces of advice are short-term fixes; the only true and healthy permanent fix is to establish your authority in a calm but firm manner.
An aggressive horse will not back down through coaxing or appeasement, which is often the first unproductive reaction from meek horse owners. While no horse owner should physically abuse their horse, ultimately if your horse presents a challenge it's important that you meet aggression with aggression. (Remember, aggression doesn't automatically equate to physical retaliation.) If you are unsure of how to work with an aggressive horse, our article How To Control An Aggressive Horse might prove a useful read.
Luckily most cases of horse food aggression are limited to pushy, impatient behavior, such as a horse that attempts to trot towards a source of food or charge through entrances. If the extent of the behavior is pushiness, I would suggest trying the following:
Apply a chain shank to the halter.
This added leverage is a temporary crutch and should NOT become a permanent way of handling your horse. You don't want to mask problems or become dependent on specific gear to work with a horse; you want to eliminate problems entirely.
Nonetheless, chain shanks, when used properly, can help take a bit of the wind out of an aggressive horse's sails. I emphasized when used properly because improper use of a chain shank can actually make a horse worse rather than better. If you haven't worked with chain shanks often, I encourage you to first read Ways To Apply A Chain Shank Properly and How To Use A Stud Chain Effectively.
Dictate the pace.
When faced with a "trotty" horse, often a horse owner allows the horse to drag him back to the stall (or food location) rather than the other way around. This is a big mistake! I realize sometimes after a long day we just want to get our horse back to the stall and call it a night, but doing this will severely compound the problem… and as the problem compounds, it can escalate to increasingly dangerous and aggressive behaviors.
If your horse charges ahead of you make sure you pull him back. A horse should walk alongside you, not ahead or behind. Due to their size advantage, this can sometimes be easier said than done, but if you need to use aids (such as a chain shank, rope halter, dressage whip or riding crop) to provide yourself additional leverage, do so. It's important for you to retain control of the situation.
When your horse starts getting pushy, turn him around and walk away from his desired location until he settles back down. Once settled, turn around and try again. If he again gets pushy, turn him back around and walk in the opposite location until settled down. Then try again. Keep this routine going until you can successfully lead your horse to the desired location, rather than allow him to lead you there.
This will test the patience of both you and your horse, and you may need to do this multiple times daily until your horse understands that you are the boss. But it's critical to consistently call the shots, because for every one time you let a horse get away with being naughty you may sabotage a week's worth of hard work and training.
Randomize the order.
If you own multiple horses and your food anxious horse is always the first (or last) to be lead from the pasture to the stall, try changing the order. This isn't a corrective action, per se, nor does it really address the root of the problem, but sometimes an insecure horse doesn't want to be last to the feed bin. Or sometimes an aggressive horse develops a sense of entitlement by always going first and needs his ego knocked down a couple notches. In most cases changing the feeding/leading order won't change much of anything, but it's always worth a shot. Just don't rely on this if you get lucky – you really want to solve the problem by establishing yourself as the alpha leader via persistent groundwork.
Break the routine.
This is similar in theory to #3. Horses can be creatures of habit, and sometimes it can be very helpful to shake up the normal routine. If your horse is always allowed to enter his stall around 5:00 p.m. and food always awaits him inside the stall when he enters, then it should be no surprise that he's going to get very excited to charge inside and eat every day at 5:00!
Be unpredictable. Let him inside the stall at other times of the day when no food is sitting there waiting for him. Try NOT having food waiting for him in his stall when you bring him back at his normal 5:00 time. Or collect him at 5:00 but instead of putting him back in his stall, wash him or make him perform some groundwork. The less habitual the feeding process is and the more unpredictable you are, the less likely your horse is to become food aggressive.
What would Alpha do?
Often horse owners just take it for granted that their horse will be pushy around dinner time. They'll rationalize it to themselves by saying, "Well, he's just excited!" or "That's just how he naturally is." If you have ever had these or similar thoughts, put them out of your head forevermore and replace them with this question instead: "Would my horse try that with an alpha mare?"
If you have ever observed horses in a pack, you will know that the lower horses on the totem pole would NOT have the audacity to push an alpha mare out of his way while he heads to the feed bin or hay pile. If the horse ever made such a mistake, you can bet the alpha mare would make him pay!
Natural horsemanship is about emulating a horse's ways as closely as possible, and that means if he can't get away with such behavior with an alpha mare, he'd better darn well not get away with it with you either. Remember, you're the alpha leader of all your horses, and if a horse is telling you to get out of the way of his food, then you've lost your leadership role. As leader, it is your food, and you will tell him when he has your permission to eat. Never forget this distinction.
These tips will help you during the leading process, but we're not finished. Dealing with food aggressive horses is an all-encompassing thing until you remove the bad habits. You must not only control a horse in a pasture or on a lead, you must control them at the root of their problem: the feed bin. So check out Controlling A Food Aggressive Horse In The Stall to continue the series.