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Horse aggressive about food

From: Jeff

I have a 10 year old Mare that I bought in September of this year, when we feed her she becomes very aggressive towards our other Mare. We feed them separately in their stalls to avoid any problems outside, but she can also become very protective of her feed even towards me if I bother her while she is eating in her stall. Yesterday I was just watching her eat and talked to her, to see if I could show her I wasn't after her food, she threw a kick in my direction and hit the water bucket destroying the bucket. I'm glad I was outside of the stall when she did this! I took her food away, few minutes later she was back to being her normal gentle self, but when I gave her back her food she pinned her ears back against her head again. This is the only time she gets this way, any other time she is a sweetheart, letting me do anything I want to do to her, but when there is food around we have to leave her alone. She is also very jealous if I pay attention towards my son's horse, she will get between me and her and throw a kick if my son's horse doesn't back off.

Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated,

Jeff


Hi Jeff! Some horses are aggressive about food because they feel that it's something they need to fight for or defend. Horses that have been brought up in large fields with good grazing and full-time access to forage are not typically as aggressive as this. I would guess that your mare has either been in situations where a previous owner put out hay in an insufficient number of piles and let the horses battle for their feed, or where grain was offered on a "come and get it now before someone else eats it" basis.

Wild horses that have spent a good deal of time in BLM pens are often aggressive about hay - something that isn't the case with wild horses on the range, or with properly-raised domestic horses! This kind of food-protection aggression is clearly a behaviour that the horses learned after being captured. The combination of overcrowding, limited space, and limited feed creates a hostile environment in which aggressive horses (or rats, or humans!) get food and timid ones don't. In such an environment, any horse can become aggressive toward other horses, and the aggression can carry over to humans later in life.

YOU know that you have no intention of stealing your mare's food, and that you wouldn't want to eat it anyway. SHE doesn't know that, and she only perceives that there is another being hanging out in the vicinity of HER DINNER, and that the other being must therefore be a threat, because if it didn't want her food, it wouldn't be hanging around. I know it seems very odd to have a horse put its ears back and attempt to bite or kick you to "defend" its dinner, when you've just GIVEN it the food... but that's precisely what happens in these cases. The food, to your horse, is HER FOOD, not something that you have kindly given her.

Taking her food away and giving it back is not useful - that's called "teasing". She cannot possibly understand that you object to her attitude about her food, she will just perceive you to be, at best, playing a cruel game with her, or, at worst, trying to get her dinner - and that's more or less where you came in, right?

It's not going to help to try to remind your mare that you are the "alpha horse" in this herd, because food-related aggression has nothing to do with herd hierarchy, and everything to do with simple survival instinct.

The best solution is simply to do what you're doing - feeding in the stalls, so that there are no horse fights over food, and so that you can be sure of exactly how much hay and grain each horse is getting, and leaving her alone to eat in peace. If the aggression is something that comes out only under certain circumstances, and you can easily avoid creating those circumstances, you don't have an enormous problem.

I would guess that her acts of aggression toward your other mare - which happen, you say, ONLY when you and both mares are together (usually in the stables?) - are just an extension of the food-defending aggression. The daily situation that puts you and both mares together is, after all, feeding time - so you can understand why the mare might react that way if her brain has shifted into "dinner mode".

As you now know, the destruction of a water bucket doesn't take a very hard kick, or an aimed kick - just a kick that happens to bring a hoof into contact with the bucket. The destruction of a human head or hand can take place just as easily. Stay out of this mare's way during meals - if necessary, put her feed in her manger before you bring her into the stable.

You may, however, want to take a look at your feeding ration and routine. If your mare is working hard for several hours each day, she may actually need grain; if she isn't, she would probably be much better off on a diet of good hay. Some horses become vastly more aggressive if they are overfed - as the cowboys say, "some horses just can't stand prosperity." ;-) An overfed, active, BORED horse (or, for that matter, a human) that doesn't get enough exercise can easily become a troublemaker.

It's not uncommon for a horse to become aggressive over a limited-quantity treat, which is what grain is for most horses. It's much less common for a horse to become aggressive in the defense of one pile of hay amongst many piles of hay. If you find that your mare does not, in fact, need supplemental concentrates, you may be able to eliminate the aggressive behaviour by keeping hay in front of her at all times. If this isn't possible, you can, at least, provide four or five piles of hay for your two horses - they may keep moving from pile to pile, but they are unlikely to battle over the hay as long as there is plenty for both, and eventually both horses will get fed, with no danger to buckets (or human body parts).

If the aggression continues or worsens in spite of different feed and management practices, you may consider having your vet test the mare's blood. There are some hormonal problems that can make otherwise nice horses very aggressive. Sometimes a thyroid supplement is all that's needed to make an aggressive horse sweet again - your vet can give you details, and tell you whether your mare's thyroid levels are unusually low.

Jessica

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