You’ve just bought beautiful hay for your beloved horse. You groom him or her, love them and as soon as you bring his feed, he pins his ears or even shakes his head at you in a threatening manner. Now why would he do that?
Some horses can be very aggressive at feeding time. With horses there is a pecking order in the herd. Horses must establish leadership and protecting their food is a pretty important part of the herd dynamic. This display of aggression is normal when horses are eating in a group.
There are a few ways to address this problem from my perspective.
Safely give them their food from the other side of a fence or stall feeder door. You can also have the horse locked out of the stall or shelter while you put hay in the feeder, letting them in when you are done.
If your horse pins his ears, address the problem by speaking firmly, establishing your leadership. If they threaten you, get big and loud, letting them know it’s not acceptable to be aggressive towards you, the established leader.
If they charge at you or wheel around to kick, it’s time for some groundwork on your part to establish your role as the leader.
If you have more than one horse you are feeding and they are in the same pen, beware if one goes after the other one and you’re in the middle of them. Always keep yourself in a safe position during feeding time. They may not intend to run over you, but if you’re in the way and they are focused on escaping the kick or bite from the other horses, you could be a casualty.
Never withhold feed as punishment. Your horse is acting instinctively. If you are afraid, get the help of a trainer who can deal with an aggressive horse. Horses will sense fear so always get help if you’re uncomfortable dealing with this on your own.
A good foundation of groundwork will help establish your leadership role. If a horse is mildly grumpy, I will leave them alone and let them eat in peace. This is not the place to start training your horse.
Personally I have good luck with my horses during feeding time. I can brush them; even pick up their feet. They don’t seem to mind being messed with when their food is in front of them. I don’t think this is the norm as they have pretty nice temperaments (and they’re a little older and wiser).
Some ways to reduce feeding stress in horses.
If you are dealing with a grumpy horse there are some things you can do to help stress during feeding time.
Consider using a slow feeder. A slow feeder such as a haynet is one way to slow down the horse that eats too fast. Horses are natural grazers. They were meant to browse and move continuously. Keeping them busy with their food a little longer is better for their digestive system. There are many types of slow feeders and things to consider.
Keep food in front of them 24/7. Some horses are just too much of a pig to consider this but in general a horse will learn to self regulate. A type of hay that is low carb, low sugar will be the best option. Depending on the type of grass where you live, you can sometimes turn them out all day.
Consider a run in shelter. Free access to move is the best option for a horse.
If you board your horse at a facility where they are stalled most of the time, be sure to give them plenty of exercise. This will help the attitude.
Other options that I have personally tried successfully are:
Using a Porta-GrazerTM. This is a great way to feed a horse. It keeps their head low when eating and simulates natural grazing, as they have to pull the hay through holes in the feeder. I secure mine in the corner of the stall. The top of the feeder that has the holes in it, comes off easily by turning until the notch lines up with the hole to remove the cover for feeding, keeping it secure when the horse is eating. The feeder itself is made of a tough plastic so it’s pretty indestructible. Downside: My horse likes to turn around and poop in the feeder.
Haynets: There are too many types of haynets to get into for the purposes of this article but my favorites are the Texas Hay Nets, and Nag Bags. I have had my NagBag for nearly 8 years and it’s just now got a tear. I use a HayGain hay steamer and it’s held up in the steamer for over 2 years now. The Texas Haynet is also a quality haynet with smaller openings and knotless construction. It has held up very well with daily use. I especially like the continuous cord to open and secure the top so it never comes out of the net itself.
Self-Standing Feeders. I have a Tarter Equine Hay Basket. It is the most amazing piece of equipment for feeding horses that I own. It’s constructed with 1-3/4” tubing and has a removable plastic liner. It’s safe, easy to move, and clean. It works best with my Texas Haynet turning it into a slowfeeder that keeps the hay off the ground. Horses can eat with their heads down, which is the best position for a horse when he’s eating.
A word about the safety of using a hay net. As with any piece of equipment there is always a way horses will figure out how to get hurt. It doesn’t mean that the equipment is flawed, just be aware of what could happen. The biggest danger with a haynet is getting a foot caught in the net.
Horses may paw when eating or waiting for you to bring more food. If they get a foot in the haynet it could be a bad wreck if the horse fights or pulls to get away. Always tie well above the ground if your horse paws. Shoes on a horse make it even more dangerous. Also watch halters and blanket straps. Anything on your horse that can connect or get caught in the hay net is a potential risk to avoid.
If you make yourself aware of the potential risks and do your best to keep your horse safe, you are well on your way to enjoying your horse to the fullest!
I firmly believe that we all need support in the care, feeding and training of our horses and ourselves. Find good, reliable sources of information when caring for your horse. A good riding instructor and trainer is a great way to get the most enjoyment out of your horse. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most talented horse trainers in the Northwest. My training as an instructor and trainer years ago gave me a solid foundation to draw from when I have issues with my horses and the knowledge to know when I need to ask for help.
I hope this gives you some ideas if you have a crabby horse at feeding time. Good luck!
Here's a link to the Haynets and Feeding Equipment I've used successfully:
Owner/Publisher Karen’s lifelong love of horses began at a very early age when she wore out a couple of rocking horses before convincing her parents to get her the real thing. That ill-tempered bay gelding, Brandy, was a challenge for the young horsewoman, but it drove her ambition to become a horse trainer. After attending Canyonview Equestrian College’s Horsemanship Program, Karen realized she needed work that was a little more lucrative than training, so she took a job with Customs Brokerage to pay the bills. There, she discovered an affinity for computers and a talent for creating informative, entertaining newsletters. The Northwest Horse Source began as such a letter in December 1995, with a distribution of 1000 copies for its 12 black and white pages. Now 25 years later, it's an online magazine and website with a reach of over 19,000 per month and growing! Not bad for the results of one woman’s dream to work with horses!