Q: My horse behaves terribly at feeding time. He gets restless, then goes into an all-out frenzy when he sees me go into the feed room. When I try to enter his stall with the grain, he pins his ears, bares his teeth and barges the door. As he eats, he makes nasty faces at the horse in the next stall, kicks the wall and squeals. 

            Why does he do this? Is there any way to stop this behavior? I’ve tried to not reward the aggression by delivering the grain, but it just escalates until he’s so enraged that I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself. Trisha Palmer; Brenham, Texas

A: This is not an uncommon problem. Many mild-tempered horses become aggressive at feeding time, and because the poor behavior often results in their meals being delivered faster, it is rewarded and reinforced. Both horse and owner become stressed, and it can even become unsafe to feed the horse.

To understand why horses do this, consider the difference between the normal feeding behaviors of wild versus stabled horses. The equine digestive anatomy, physiology and behavior is geared toward trickle feeding—many small portions of low-quality (fibrous) food for at least 16 hours a day. In nature, horses graze all day and move slowly from spot to spot. If a high-
ranking horse claims one patch of grass, the others simply yield and move on to the next promising spot. They are not fed in sequence—all of the horses graze more or less simultaneously.

Compare that to the life of stabled horses, many of whom receive only two meals a day that consist of one or two sorts of roughage combined with a small amount of high-quality (concentrated) feed. In a large facility, it can take several minutes for the feed cart to get to the last horse. Not only does this routine put a horse at a higher risk of gastrointestinal problems such as colic and ulcers, but it also engenders the territorial behaviors you describe.

Other factors may also be contributing to your horse’s mealtime fits:

  • Pain can affect horse behavior. Have your veterinarian rule out any gastrointestinal problems such as stomach ulcers or enteroliths.
  • Overfeeding of energy can lead to behavior problems. Decreasing the amount of grain and starch in a horse’s diet may reduce his arousal during feeding time. A veterinary nutritionist can help you determine if your horse’s diet is appropriate.
  • Environmental stressors—such as a horse’s work regimen, general handling, turnout time and associations with other horses—affect behavior. Most horses benefit from visual and physical contact with herdmates, but sometimes the distance between stalls does not offer enough “personal space” during feeding. This can lead to conflict, expressed through kicking the stall wall toward the other horse and pinning the ears.

To address your horse’s case, a veterinary behaviorist would first look for the causes of his reaction, then tailor a behavior-modification plan to address them. These recommendations might include leaving an adjacent stall empty to increase the distance between horses and cut down on contact aggression. The plan might also suggest changes in routine, environment or feeding schedule geared toward replicating a more natural lifestyle. For example, placing hay in a net with small holes, or “double bagging” it in two nets, makes forage last longer and may reduce the frustration that mounts after it is gone.

To reduce a horse’s aggression toward the person delivering the feed, a behaviorist might recommend taking steps to both avoid the situation and protect the safety of the individual. For example, take the horse out prior to feeding time and keep him where he cannot see or hear grain being placed
in his stall. Then lead him back and
remove his halter only when he is calm.

Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB
University of California–Davis
Davis, California