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Ask the Trainer: Bad Attitude at Feeding Time


My 3 year old gelding has developed a habit of dipping his neck down, then shaking his head at me at feeding time. He didn't do this over summer, of the two youngsters he was the most respectful. I assume his attitude says he is more important than I am, and wonder how to correct him. He is second to the mare in herd status, she is just 4 but very dominant over him, but accepts me as lead mare. Why has my lovely Chinook taken such a turn? Had him since he was a baby, and the only difference is, its Alaska and its winter so I don't spend as much time with them.

Samantha Harvey & TEC Answer:
Thanks for writing. There could always be a million reasons why a horse "suddenly" starts to behave in a certain manner. I would guess he did not start this over night, but perhaps he did more subtle mannerisms that you may have not noticed. As for his attitude towards you, take a look at another Ask the Trainer article I have posted about young horse behavior. Trust

Instead of being distracted by his head tossing (which is a symptom and not the issue itself) you may have to investigate and "break down" the big picture to understand why your horse is doing what he is. Head tossing is typically a mixed sign of frustration and a bit of a challenge. The challenge masks the insecurity he is feeling (if he is more offensive rather than defensive he may be able to protect himself better.)

If he is second man on the totem pole, perhaps he sees you as lower than he, and takes out any frustration he is feeling towards the lead mare on you. If there is any worry as to accessibility to feed he may be impatient at feeding time to get as much as he can before he gets run off by the lead mare. You may ask yourself a few simple questions- any change in diet, feeding times, feeding locations, herd setup (pasture vs. stall) that may be attributing to the change in his behavior.

Many people work with their horses in a challenging manner, "Let's see if they can get this right or tolerate this." Rather than with a "Let me see how I can HELP my horse get this right," type of attitude. The time to address his head shaking, worry and/or anxiety is not when he is feeling it at it's peak (currently at feeding time,) rather to start to communicate and interact with him during a less stressful time. If you have access to a round pen or small and safe area to work with him at liberty (because a lot of times horses "keep in" bad feelings when they are on a line as this is what they have been taught to do.)

When he is loose in the pen does he acknowledge you, seek your help for leadership, look for guidance, show the same aggressive or frustrated signs towards you as at feeding time, etc.? You will need to find a mental availability (do not get distracted by what he is physically doing- this is only a reflection of what he is feeling on the inside) for him to learn to ask you for help when he is having a problem (even if it is during feeding time.) The more he trusts and has confidence in you, the more his aggressive behavior will dissipate. Horses act aggressively because they are feeling BAD on the inside, not because they enjoy acting out towards people.
While at liberty we do not just want your horse physically near you, rather we would like him to feel relaxed (in posture, stance, breathing, thoughts, etc.) and have "warm and fuzzy" feelings in being "with" you mentally rather than physically "tolerating" your presence. There are many ways you can play with him in the pen and you may need to seek the guidance of local trainer who prioritizes working with the horse's brain rather than his movements. Many times when working at liberty people get distracted by setting their sights on having their horse accomplish a specific task, rather than remaining clear and focused on HOW the horse feels when addressing a task. If he is having a problem, the task is no longer important, rather changing how he feels about what he is being asked to do is. If he can start to see you addressing his feelings and worries, he will start to trust you and change how he outwardly is acting towards you and the other horses.
He is also young and just as with people, he is exploring the boundaries of what works and what does not both in how he addresses horses and people. He needs to understand that just because you like or care for you horse, does not mean that he gets to delegate how the two of you interact with one another.

Feedback from Horse Owner
I had written to your website regarding my young Chinook and his aggressive behavior. Made some changes in feeding arrangements, and in less than a week, he was no longer challenging me. Until I can permanently separate him from the mare, in spring, he now eats shut in his stall, where she cannot get at him or his feed. I use that time to groom him, handle his feet etc. and he is his old sweet self again. Such a simple solution, and it worked wonders.

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