22 JANUARY 2016 | HorseIllustrated.com
as minor as grabbing the hay out of your arms when
you arrive to distribute dinner. Horses may behave
this way to establish who’s dominant in the herd—and
if you are present with food, you’re part of the herd for
When horses establish who’s in charge in the herd,
they show they are dominant by controlling space
and controlling resources. The resources are food,
water and shelter. With food aggression, the horse is
often simultaneously invading your space and taking
away the food. That’s his way to control space and
resources all at once. Keep in mind that he doesn’t
know the di;erence between horse food and people
food—he doesn’t know you won’t eat it. He knows he
wants it and he can take it from you.
Hand feeding treats can also lead to the horse
thinking he is in charge and allowed to take food
from your hand. He learns that by pushing into you,
he can control where you stand and where you’ll
go. Sometimes horses develop food aggression just
because their dominant behavior has been tolerated in
the past; then it becomes worse over time. Sometimes
aggression develops when feeders don’t go into the
pen with the horse at all. When horses are fed only
twice a day (instead of eating all day long like nature
intended), there is a lot of stress and anxiety over when
the next meals comes.
Some horses will be so anxious that they start acting
out, like pawing, pinning their ears or baring teeth.
Then when you dump the hay in, the horse comes
to believe his aggressive gestures are causing you to
feed him. Even though you aren’t going into the pen,
so his gestures don’t concern you, to him it’s as if he
intimidated you into dropping the food and leaving, so
his aggressive gestures were rewarded.
There is also herd stress if you’re feeding in a group
and only feeding twice a day. Horses may be worried
about getting their food and also worried if another
horse will allow them to eat. Those two factors—the
herd and the limited food resource—may make the
horses aggressive toward one another as well as
anyone present at feed time. In that case, I would
recommend separating them for feeding to reduce the
competition for food, or feeding more often.
If a horse is acting out toward you as you bring the
food, that’s easy to fix. I would use a fabric flag on a
stick whenever I approach the horse’s pen, whether I
intend to go into it or not. Wave the flag at the horse
to back him up. Once he yields his space, he will then
look forward at you to see what’s going to happen next.
While his ears are forward and after he has backed up,
drop the food and walk away. If his aggressive antics
don’t get him what he wants, he will stop acting that
way. Make sure you have a flag or stick so you can
Remember, he doesn’t have to behave well for
long—he just has to behave right at the moment you
feed him. It’s not that the alpha horse never lets the
other horses eat; they just have to wait until she walks
away from the food. HI
JULIE GOODNIGHT shares her lessons
on her;RFD-TV show, Horse Master (also
online at tv.juliegoodnight.com), and
through clinics and expos.;
HEIDI MELOCCO (www.whole-picture.
com);is a lifelong horsewoman, equine
journalist, and photographer.