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Improving Horse Problems at Feeding Time

by Linda Parelli

There is a savvy way to do everything with horses. The more you learn about horse problems, being able to read situations before anything goes wrong and knowing what to do about it—the more safety and success you will have.

Feeding time can stir up emotional and dominance-based behaviors in horses. In the herd environment some of the biggest pecking order battles occur over who gets to drink or eat first. Even though your horse may not be kept with other horses, this behavior is still a strong part of his instincts. You may find your horse performing these same behaviors with you.

Here are some of the most common behaviors:

Ears back Charging or kicking at you Pacing, head tossing, pawing and other demonstrations of impatience Aggressive behavior towards other horses Anxiety

Most of these behaviors are actually caused by people scheduling regular feeding times and allowing horses to rush to their feed before being invited. The following information is meant to teach you how to change these patterns and thus reshape your horse’s behavior… not to mention keep you safe.

General Feeding Principles

Don’t feed at exactly the same time every day

Allow a two-hour window for feeding (for instance, anywhere between 5PM and 7PM). Horses learn habits very quickly. If you are regimented in your feeding times, you will teach horses to become demanding, impatient and emotional if you are late.

Create a sweet spot

Feed at the place you want your horses to draw toward, like the gate. Some people establish feeding places in pastures that are a long way from the gate. You want the gate to be a sweet spot, and not only the place they see you when you come to get them for other reasons. Provide plenty of room between horses if you are feeding a group in one place.

Avoid battles between horses

It is natural for horses to play dominance games over things like feed and water. Help avoid wars by feeding the dominant horse first and by allowing lots of space between feed buckets—a minimum of three horse lengths. Make sure a horse is never fed in a corner where he can be trapped.

Create a conditioned response

Establish a call or whistle for every time you arrive to feed or to get your horse to play. This is called a “conditioned response”. You want to program a habit in your horses of having them come when you call. Don’t let horses push on you. Don’t get caught in between two horses involved in a dominance competition at feeding time.

Give horses permission to eat

At first you might want to carry a Carrot Stick so you can drive horses away from you. Then ask them to wait until you invite them to feed by smiling and walking away. Because you are aiming to become the “dominant horse”, you should adopt the same behavior that dominant horses do at feeding time: “Stand back until I give you permission to eat!”

Don’t cause your horse to get crabby

In the early stages of learning the Parelli Method and feeding your horse, don’t mess with your horse after he starts eating. Eating and drinking times are when horses are most inclined to assert their dominance, so you don’t want to invite potential problems right now.

Once you allow your horse to come to his feed, smile and leave. It’s important that your horse understands the ritual and to realize that he is not dominant over you, which is especially tested at feeding time. Only then will it be safe to stroke or pet him while he’s eating.

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