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Minding Manners at Feed Time

Julie Goodnight

Is your horse cranky at feed time? Does he pin his ears, bare his teeth and stomp his feet? Or worse, does he grab the hay out of your arms and shove you aside? If your horse has bad manners at feed time, he may be displaying aggressive and dominant behavior because he thinks his actions are making you feed him. While this kind of behavior can be dangerous, it can also erode your authority with the horse and make him difficult to handle in other situations.

Horses establish dominance in the herd, in part, by controlling the feed-the dominant horse can take away the feed of a more subordinate horse. If your horse comes to believe his antics are making you surrender the feed to him, in his mind, that means he's dominant. If your horse has bad feed-time manners, take a training flag with you and wave it at him; once he backs up and looks at you with his ears forward, throw him the feed and walk away.

Horses develop this kind of bad behavior from anxiety over their feed and because they have been inadvertently rewarded for bad behavior. In the wild, horses eat small amounts all day long; constantly roaming in order to find suitable forage. In domestication, we have confined horses and generally feed them in two rations of very concentrated feed, leaving them to go for long periods without eating. For this reason, horses can have a lot of anxiety around feed time.

In acting out his anxiety, your horse one day arbitrarily displayed some emotional behavior, like pinning his ears or stomping his feet. Then someone came along and fed him and he made an association, right or wrong, between his bad behavior and getting fed. So the next day, he tried it again and low and behold, he got fed again! Remember, he doesn't understand the human world and your plans and routine. He not only believes his antics are causing you to feed him, but he also thinks he's taking away the food from you and in his world-that means he's dominant.

Whatever your horse is doing at the moment you release him (or reward him) is what you are training him to do. That's why timing is such a critical part of horse training. If you just take a few moments to back the horse up and wait for him to display respectful behavior before giving him the feed, his bad manners will disappear and he will become more respectful of you as his leader.

Learning to think like a horse, instead of a human is one of our most difficult challenges in working with horses. My groundwork videos give lots of information on horse behavior and specific exercises you can do with your horse, teaching you to be the leader your horse needs you to be.

You know Julie Goodnight as The Horse Master on her new RFD-TV television show. Through her varied background-riding and training horses in dressage, jumping, racing, reining, colt-starting, and versatility ranch work, and wilderness riding-Julie has discovered the underlying principles important to any type of riding. She communicates clearly with horses and riders in any discipline and at any level. Julie travels coast-to-coast-and beyond-throughout much of the year to help horses and riders at horse expos, conferences, clinics, and while filming for her television "makeover" show. Julie has been featured in the top equestrian publications, including Western Horseman, Horse & Rider, Equus, Perfect Horse and America's Horse. Her syndicated columns appear in over 15 regional publications throughout North America. Her interactive websites, and reach an even wider audience. Julie is also the International Spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association-known as CHA. She resides near Salida, Colorado, at her private horse ranch with her husband, Rich Moorhead, the CEO of Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area.

Enjoy the ride!

For more information on this and many other important topics, please check out the archived articles on Julie's website.

- Julie Goodnight,