Understanding Food Aggressive Horses

food aggressive horses

Is your horse food aggressive? Understanding the whys will go a long way towards retraining this habit.

Food is one of a horse’s most important resources, and no matter how much you give him he is always possessive about what he has. In order to keep that food, horses will become aggressive. Most are merely food aggressive when it comes to other horses, but there are those that include humans in their herd and will also become food aggressive with their owners.

There are two kinds of aggression – true aggressive, and false aggressive. It is important you know which category your horse falls into before you try to correct him, or you’ll just make him worse. False aggression

A False Aggressive

A horse is usually the one that pins his ears at feeding time. He typically does this as you approach and often leaves his ears pinned while being fed. He will usually let you feed him and pet him. This is false aggression.

I feel sorry for these horses. They’re the ones at shows that are usually treated badly. Everyone labels them aggressive because they pin their ears as people walk by. All the horse is doing is asking for food the only way he knows how, by begging everyone with his ears. As each person walks by and ignores the horse, or in some cases gets mad at him, he stands there confused and unable to understand why the “trick” he has learned no longer works. So how was this “trick”

Accidental Learned

In the case above, the horse has accidentally learned to ask for food by pinning his ears and is not actually being aggressive. It usually happens by accident, and because the owner is in a hurry at feeding time, she reinforces it every day.

It starts like this: the horse in the stall or paddock sees food coming and pins his ears to warn other horses to stay away. He will do this even if the other horse is in another stall or paddock. It is just a natural reaction for some horses to let the other ones know they need to keep clear. At the same time as the ears are pinned, the owner throws in the food. The horse says to himself, “Wow, I just realized if I pin my ears they throw me food.” The next day it happens again. Within two to three feedings, the horse is convinced that pinning his ears does two things: it keeps other horses away, and makes the food come through the feed window.

It is easy to identify this type of horse. He usually pins his ears at feeding time, and typically doesn’t care if you pet him or hang out with him while he eats. You can usually take the food away without much fuss.

Actions are Louder than Words

However, there is a huge problem coming for this horse and owner. These horses sometimes appear aggressive when they are not. This usually happens when someone is standing there with the food chatting with someone else and not feeding it to the horse. As the horse waits with his ears pinned and nothing happens, he will sometimes make an aggressive move towards whoever has the food. Immediately, someone wants to correct him and exclaims how nasty he has become – not true!

What has actually happened is like you raising your voice to someone to get something done. The horse cannot speak, so instead of raising his voice for emphasis, he raises his actions. In this case, the horse pinned his ears and said, “Throw me my food please.” When that did not happen, he then raised his voice and request by making a false lunge or snapping his teeth, stating in a more forceful way, “Stop ignoring me and throw me my food now.” This is the same request a parent often has to make to a child to get him to clean his room, or take out the garbage.

You Do Not Need to Punish this Horse

You do not need to punish your horse. In fact, punishment will make matters worse. You deal with him by simply changing your behavior so your horse changes his. Here’s how:

• At feeding time, approach the stall with the horse’s food. If he pins his ears, start backing up.
• As you back up, you will notice the ears come forward. When they do, approach again.
• If the ears go back again as you get close, simply back up until the ears are forward. Verbally praise your horse, and begin to approach again.
• If the ears stay forward, give the horse his food. If the ears go back, simply set the food down and leave the barn for 15 minutes. Then come back and try the same technique.Approach and retreat until the ears are forward.

Most of the time it will only take a few attempts to change the behavior. When done right, I have never seen it take more than three feedings to make a major change. However, do be aware that when the time comes to drop the food to the horse, he will almost always pin his ears just as you let it fall. Don’t worry about it. Don’t go in and retrieve it, don’t get mad. It will go away quickly enough.

Remember this: you or someone who owned the horse before you accidentally taught him this false aggressive behavior. It is up to you to train it back out of him.

True Aggression

This horse is different and can actually be dangerous when you try to change his behavior. He wants his food and will go through you to get it. He will pin his ears and jam his head in the bucket (which is not the same as a horse who tries to poke his head into the bucket, a habit that is easily discouraged). A true aggressive horse will also try to keep you away from his food if you attempt to take it back from him. In some cases these horses bite, stomp their feet, and will often start to turn their butt towards you.

Approach and Retreat

For a horse this aggressive I will take his feed outside and set it down. I will also take a lead rope or lariat with me. I then stand over the food or very close to it. If the horse approaches with pinned ears and a sour expression I will ask him to stay back by swinging the rope or lariat in an easy arc. This swinging is just to let him know I have the rope. If he continues with the sour expression, I swing it harder and go after him just enough to drive him away. Soon he will come back. If he has his ears forward and relaxed, he gets to continue in, but he has them pinned and is coming quickly then I go after him again. However, the second time I will be slightly more aggressive about it. I will swing the rope faster and harder, and even advance on the horse. I rarely (if ever) make contact or strike the horse – there is seldom any need to do so even with aggressive horses. When he has retreated, I will then go back to stand guard over the food. I will continue this until the horse approaches with ears forward.

Once this happens, I gesture for the horse to stop a few feet away from the food. If he does, while staying relaxed, I will slowly move away from the food and let him have it. If he starts to pin his ears again as I move away, I softly and easily raise my lead rope as if I am going to swing it (but do not). If the ears come forward we are done. He gets the idea. Please notice that I said to raise the lead rope softly and easily. This is because the horse needs to feel you are warning and not attacking him. That is what horses do to other horses – fi rst they warn, then they escalate. This scenario is different than when the horse was coming at you quickly and aggressively, and that is why you must not attack him or send him harshly away. He already came in respectfully, and stopped. Then, much like a child as you leave the room after a scolding, he wants to get the last word in, so he pins his ears. All you need to do is give him is a gentle reminder, hence raising the rope. If you whirl around and attack him or get mad, he will feel he has to defend himself and may become even more aggressive.

With a little bit of patience, persistence and lots of consistency, grumpy faces at feeding time can become a thing of the past, and the whole barn will be much more peaceful for it.


Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning self defense for trail riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn and offers professional training and clinics in thinking horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at horsethink.com. To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail sandy@horsethink.com

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