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Feeding order and herd dynamics

From: Elizabeth

Dear Jessica,

I've been curious about this question for some time and have never seen it addressed, so I'm hoping you will include it as part of your wonderful Horse Sense newsletter.

In training dogs, standard wisdom seems to be that you should always feed the most dominant dog first and then on down the pecking order, so that you don't inadvertently cause the lower-status dog(s) to get picked on. How about with horses?

In my own situation, I have four geldings and I bring them in to the barn to eat. Since my horses can enter and leave their individual stalls at will, I basically just feed the slowest eater first and the fastest eater last so that the slow ones have time to finish before the fast ones decide to come nosing around for any crumbs. Coincidentally, though, the slowest horse is also the furthest down on the hierarchy, and I frequently wonder whether I'm creating any problems for him by doing things this way. It certainly wouldn't be difficult to keep them all locked in their stalls until everyone is finished, but my way sure cuts down on the time it takes me to feed before work!

What do you think, Jessica? Am I causing my horse to get picked on by feeding him before the dominant horses?

Thanks for everything you do!


Hi Elizabeth! It seems to me that you've got a very good system here. You're not creating any problems for your slow-eating horses; on the contrary, you're ensuring that they get all the feed that they're supposed to get. Feeding the dominant, faster eaters first is more likely to create a problem, because they will be very likely to inhale their own feed first, then make the lower-ranking horses move away from their feed. This way, they have to wait - especially since you are right there watching them - until they're given their own feed in their own stalls.

My only question would be: Can they get into one another's stalls? If the stalls all open into a central, common area, then you may want to watch them periodically to see which horses are eating what food. If you discover that after the first fifteen minutes, the faster eaters have finished their grain and are getting into the stalls of the slower eaters in order to eat THEIR grain, then you'll want to close the stalls during meal-times. You may not have to close them all, but it would be a good idea to close the stalls of the slower eaters, to give them a chance to finish. This is a useful practice anyway - separating horses at meal-times and feeding each one in its own stall - because it gives you a chance to be quite certain that each horse is getting precisely the feed (not to mention supplements and medications) that you WANT it to get. If horses are fed separately, you can manage their weight and maintain their condition much more easily - and you will also notice very quickly if any one of your horses is "off" its feed... something that won't be immediately apparent if the other horses are free to help themselves to its leftovers. Plus, when horses are separated for meals, they can eat at the speed that is comfortable for them. Some will consume a large amount of feed very quickly - and some will take an hour or more to go through a single quart of oats.

Don't worry, you aren't creating any social problems for your slow-eating, non-dominant horse by feeding him first. If you end up feeding each horse in its own closed stall, you still won't create any post-prandial social problems, no matter which horse is fed first.

Horses don't exhibit the same behaviour patterns as dogs do - there are some key differences between predators and prey animals. Again, you're right, most dog trainers, especially those who have a lot of experience with rescues and re-training projects, will tell you that "top dog eats first" (which is also why, if you have a dominant dog, you should eat before it does, and not feed it from the table). That's pack behaviour, and it makes sense to dogs.

Horses are different, because they think differently (herd behaviour isn't the same as pack behaviour) and because they're programmed to eat differently. Horses are grazers, nibblers, trickle-feeders - they're designed to process roughage 24 hours a day. For the natural horse, food isn't a reward or a treat, it's a way of life - they graze most of the day and night. Domestic horses graze in pastures - and in winter we usually substitute hay for their grazing, but the eating pattern is still the same: A mouthful here, a mouthful there, and that's how the day goes by.

If you divide bales of hay and distribute flakes all over your pasture, or all the way down a fenceline, the horses will eat happily for as long as the hay lasts. You may see some posturing and shifting, but nobody is going to go hungry as long as the piles of hay are sufficiently well-separated, and that there are always a couple of extra piles). Healthy, well-fed horses that chase each other away from feed tubs aren't jealous of one another for being fed first or envious because one of them gets a special supplement. The pushing and nipping and chasing behaviours don't really have much to do with the feed itself.

The "I'M going to eat that, YOU go away!" behaviour is all about dominance - the horse at the top is reminding the others that it IS the horse at the top, but it doesn't do this by fighting with the lower-ranked horses, it just causes them to move their feet and take themselves off in another direction. Sometimes the behaviour is obvious - the dominant horse actually bites and chases another horse. Usually it's much more subtle, and unless you're watching carefully, you might not notice that one horse twitches an ear or extends its next one inch in the direction of another horse, and the other horse shifts its weight slightly away from the first horse... but the message is the same: "I outrank you" and "Yes, yes, you do indeed."

When you put your horses into stalls to feed them, and make it impossible for them to chase each other around and eat one another's food, they'll just eat - there won't be any social repercussions afterwards.


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