Feed Your Horse Without Fear: Dealing with Aggressive Behaviour at Feeding Time

“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.




12 thoughts on “Feed Your Horse Without Fear: Dealing with Aggressive Behaviour at Feeding Time

  1. Will you always need to have the whip with you or can you expect that the horse will eventually give you right of way without the whip in hand?

    • With some horses, you might not even need the whip to start. In the specific situation that I was answering, the horse had already kicked the person and so the whip would be needed to create a stronger push and even a “bite” if necessary to keep the horse out of her space. We need to be able to read the horse’s level of energy & respond with the same amount of energy. If we are too passive, we appear to be a “push over”. If we are too strong, we will be a bully and instill fear – possibly escalating the horse’s aggressive behaviour out of self defense.

      As the horse starts to give more respect, the whip will not be necessary as he will give to a much more subtle cue. Just like the alpha mare in a herd of horses only needs to pin her ears and flip her head or move her hip slightly towards the transgressor, we can give a flick of the hand or cock a hip and the horse will yield.

  2. I (stupidly) bought a 2 year old Belgian stallion a long time ago- The only thing that got his attention was the Parelli method of “acting liker a crazy person with a stick” haha, He’s a good boy now, and very very cautious about food…he even waits for me to say …”ok!” before he eats…. Anyway, thats just our experience, thought I’d share 🙂

    • There is always more than one way to get the end result. But what kind of relationship is created? I can get my way through bullying and intimidation (with people as well as with animals), by manipulation, or by earning the place of authority. My goal is to be a benevolent, trusted and respected leader not a dictator. To earn that place, there may be times when strong, assertive energy is necessary. But always partnered with my respect for the person or animal. In all relationships (human or equine), I want the other being to feel safe with me because I have proven that I am not a threat, that I have their best interests at heart and that I earned their respect.

  3. I have many horses boarding at my place and I am very familiar and practice with Chris’s methods. This one particular horse I don’t work with one on one (which I suppose I “should”)due to the fact I don’t make time for her a priority based on other responsabilities. She’s my dads horse and although I don’t do one on one, she is still with my herd and when it comes to bringing out the hay, she doesn’t impose on my space by trying to push me. What she does do is run a big half circle around the tractor or tomb feeder getting out of my way while trying to sneak at the hay from the other end.
    All the other horses stand back and while waiting for their meal, they watch as I (with my level lunge whip) keep her away from the food. She is a pre Madonna and has her tail curled up and on her back, that of a husky dog. after about 10 mins of her racing around the field, trying to dodge me or loose me behind the tractor/tomb feeder which are side by side. She will finally lower her head and wait. Afte a minute or her good behavior I open my energy to allow for all the horses to come eat as long as they approach respectfully. At times she bombards the feeder, where the “game” starts over again. At times she trys to chase the others away from the food too, but the others know they can stay and are welcome to eat.
    This has been going on for a looong time.
    I do go visit the horses without the hay, and she doesn’t bully. Although she will walk away after a quick encounter with her tail curled and ends with me pointing at her butt as if it was my idea for her to be gone…
    I am familiar with the concept of reestablishing routine and that after 3 times with consistancy it “should” realign!
    Any suggestions?
    I’m not panicked for a solution. It only takes as much as 10 mins before I can drive away with the tractor, I just don’t understand why she continues to be such a snag about it EVERY time! LoL!
    I’m going to guess that your response will be that she needs one on one training to adjust her attitude… And that is something I most likely will do this summer when time will be on my side. I’m just kinda hoping you have some insight that I have yet to tap into 🙂

    • Sharlynn, I must apologize that I did not see your comment when it was originally posted. Since it is now almost a year later, I’m wondering if you did have time to work with this mare this past summer and how you are doing with her now.

  4. ok i have a 2 year old stud an hes a complete butt when it comes to feed. he trys to rear but i jerk him back down. he bucks an kicks. what can i do to stop him. ???

  5. Rachel – the situation you describe is one that is difficult to give advice on without knowing your experience with training horses, what training (if any) your horse has had, and a more complete description of the situation. Can you post a video of your horse at feeding time?

    In many cases like yours, the horse is reacting to the body language and energy of the human. He is also affected by the behaviour of other horses (even if they are in a different paddock or a nearby stall).

    When your horse “tries to rear”, rather than “jerking him down”, open your hand on the lead line and then push his hips away from you. Since he also bucks and kicks, this is best done with a long whip (like a lunge whip) so that you are out of kicking range. Don’t “whip” him. Flick the end of the whip from the ground up towards his hip. As he moves his hip away, he will turn his front end towards you and also come down. Jerking on his head will only make him head shy and/or more aggressive. The rearing/jerking becomes a vicious cycle with the horse rearing because he anticipates getting jerked.

    Yes gelding will help calm his behaviour to some extent. It’s my opinion that:
    1) only experienced horse people should keep stallions,
    2) only exceptionally nice (temperament and confirmation) horses should be kept as stallions,
    3) until there is no more need for horse rescues and shipping horses to slaughter, breeding should be stopped.

    The most important thing for both you and your young horse right now is good training – for both your sakes. Get some help from an experienced and compassionate horse person/trainer so you can build a positive relationship with this youngster and become the best horse person you can be. Put yourself and your horse in good hands.

    • i have people who have alot of experience with horses around me. an okay thank you for tellin me about jerkin down ive always been told to do it. but i will try they thing you have told me.

  6. Pingback: Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass | Confident Horsemanship with Anne Gage

  7. Pingback: Horse Training: Stopping Your Horse from Grabbing Grass | Anne Gage ~ Confident Horsemanship

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