“My horse’s 20 year old pasture buddy has arthritis in his knee. His knee is huge and we thought he would need to be put down this fall, but he is moving well. So well that he has been bucking at feeding time recently (he’s the dominant horse but he is usually quiet). Unfortunately he kicked me this week in the thigh and elbow. Thankfully no broken bones, but this behaviour can’t happen again.
Our set-up is a run in shed where I feed both horses. My horses are out 24/7 and I walk down the hill to the shed to feed. I usually point with my arm to the shed, duck under the white tape, and move forward toward the shed. The older horse usually walks with me and the younger (14yrs.) one runs ahead. There are feed pails and water in the shed and the horses usually walk go to their respective sections. In the winter, I have their pellets in a zip lock, dump the pellets into their respective pails and return to the bring the hay down in a sled. I was kicked shortly after I went under the wire.
In the past I used Tellington Jones method and the wand with my 14 year old horse. Unfortunately the pasture mate has not had the training.
Aggression at feeding time is an undesirable behaviour that is a real safety issue for anyone caring for horses. When a horse behaves in this manner, he is demonstrating quite clearly that he sees himself as the alpha horse in the herd. His actions are simply meant to push a lower herd mate away from the food. In the wild, horses find food by grazing and moving continuously from place to place. If the alpha wants to graze in a particular area, she pushes the other horse or horses off. Most often it is done very quietly and the lower ranked horses comply so there is no need for larger postures that use up valuable energy. Only if the alpha is challenged does the behaviour escalate until one of the horses backs down.
Our domestic horses have the same innate herd behaviours and body language cues. When they are not afraid of and do not feel threatened by humans, they will behave with us the same way they do with other horses. It is the only way they know how to be. In your little herd of 2 horses, the older one is the alpha. He sees you as being between him and his food and is trying to push you away from it. As soon as he sees you coming, he may be communicating with more subtle body language cues that go unnoticed before he gets to the point of being as aggressive as you described (ie kicking). Another part of this situation is that horses quickly recognize patterns so that once a situation has repeated as few as 3 times the horse has been “trained” to behave in a particular way. For example, he becomes anxious as he sees you coming with the food, that anxiety creates adrenaline and that adds to his stronger behaviour.
In order to change this behaviour, the horse needs to see you as the alpha. Then he will respect your space and not challenge you for the food. In order for this to happen, you need to reinforce in every interaction with him that you expect him to respect your personal space while you respect his. You don’t need to necessarily have specific training sessions with this horse for this to happen. You are training a horse any time he can see you. He is reading your body language, your level of awareness and your energy (ie passive, assertive, aggressive, fearful, etc.).
Try this exercise:
1) Go to the paddock at a non-feeding time, stay on the outside of the fence, and have a lunge whip with you. The whip is not to be used as a weapon, but becomes an extension of your body and allows you to keep the horse a safe distance away from you. Picture a large bubble around you that the horse is not permitted to enter. The bubble is the length of the whip. As the horse approaches you, move the whip from side to side keeping the lash pointed towards the horses feet. If he continues to move forward, increase the energy in the side to side movement and gradually bring the whip up to his knees and then to his chest. If he still continues to move forward, the last resort is to give him a “bite” with the lash on his chest or shoulder. Never bring the whip higher than the chest. If he turns away and kicks out towards you (no matter how far away he is from you), give him a strong push to his hips with your whip. Always bring the whip from the ground up towards the horse and only bring the point of the whip as high as the horse’s mid-line. You are looking for the horse to show respect for your space by backing away from your push with a level or low head and then staying the whip length away from the fence.
2) Once you have achieved that level of respect, then do the same exercise with a bucket of food or some carrots on the ground on your side of the fence. Again, you are looking for the horse to show respect by backing away from your push and then staying the whip length away from the fence. When the horse is staying back, you can walk away from the food allowing him to come to the fence to get it. Then, change your mind and walk back to the food pushing him away. If he is being respectful, he will back away.
3) Once you have achieved that level of respect, you are ready to try the same exercises inside the paddock. First without the food and then with some food.
Our relationships with our horses become safer and less stressful for us and for them when we develop mutual trust and respect. This can best be achieved with a good understanding of herd dynamics and equine body language that can be applied to all of interactions with the horses.