In my part of the world this is the time of year we start putting out hay. The pastures are down for the count; not only snow-covered and dormant but at least for this year, the good stuff is pretty much used up. So it’s time to break out the hay (and my checkbook!) and start the ritual of winter feeding. While for me it is seasonal, for many horse people this is a year-round thing, the only viable way to keep a horse’s belly full.
It would seem there’s not much to it once you’ve figured out how to satisfy your horse’s nutritional and “chewing time” needs; you put his hay on the ground or in a feeder, maybe add in some grain if he needs a little extra zip in his diet, and your horse takes care of the rest. It is very easy to get blasé about a chore that is so mundane.
Easy, but wrong.
For one thing, there is nothing mundane about feeding time to your horse. I’m sure he’ll tell you it is REALLY EXTRA TOTALLY SUPER-IMPORTANT! In fact if it isn’t totally super-important you might want to make certain he’s feeling alright. Do not underestimate how big a deal feed time is to your horse. In evolutionary terms it is of prime importance: reproduction, growth and social rituals don’t happen if certain nutritional needs are not met over time. But, while these functions aren’t going to shut down if your horse misses his breakfast this morning, many of our horse friends have developed a skewed view about the importance of an individual meal. This is because of the manner in which they have those nutritional needs met.
In psychological terms, the typical twice a day feeding schedule is a big culprit in this distorted outlook. This is especially true if your horse doesn’t have access to pasture. Horses evolved to graze off and on throughout the day. I’ve watched horses at leisure (a relative term) many, many times and typically they’ll graze at dawn and play horse games, graze again and then head to water and maybe hangout in the shade for a while, after which they’ll graze some more, perhaps catch another drink, hang out some and then graze their way up towards their night haunts. This routine changes with the season and the moisture content of the grass etc. but within each season, you can almost set your watch by it. What all this means is that it’s not natural for a horse to have to worry about his next meal: it’s right there at his feet and it’s coming soon.
When we interrupt this natural rhythm by restricting movement and taking away his free lunch we put a worry on our horse friends that shouldn’t be there. Some manage just fine but many of them struggle to deal with it. They often react in ways that are unpleasant to us but—if you keep in mind how things are supposed to work— entirely logical and to be expected. Since he has no way of being certain when or even if that next flake of hay is going to come plus he is confined and unable to go out and graze, he may bolt through what he does have as fast as he can as a survival mechanism. He may also defend it as if his life depended on it.
There are a lot of ancillary problems that come along with this scenario, some physical and some emotional. Physically, he will eat too much at once (a horse’s stomach is only about the size of a football, try stuffing 12 lbs. of hay into that!) which can cause distension and incomplete digestion. Then afterwards, he will be empty and hungry for several hours which can lead to ulcers and uneven performance. The ulcer problem occurs when gastric acid is splashed on the upper portion of the stomach walls, which is not as rugged as the lower portion. For this reason I will make sure that horses I ride early in the morning get a couple pounds of something in their bellies before we take off. This is to keep the acid from sloshing around too much. One other physical effect not to be overlooked is the increased likelihood of injuries when multiple horses are fed together. I’m not saying group feeding is a bad practice (I do it) but kicks and bites are a known side-effect. I’ll have more on that and how to handle it later in the article.
The emotional effects of twice daily feeding can be far reaching too, extending into your relationship with your horse in ways that may not be so obvious. They can range from simple distraction to raging aggression. When you consider that many of these troubles are self-inflicted it may behoove you to see if there is anything you can do about it.
I don’t want to minimize the problem by calling it simple distraction; if your horse’s feeding time alarm goes off while you are riding you may suddenly find yourself very low on his list of priorities. In some horses this can be so bad that hearing the feed wagon roll out means you are done riding and/or all your good work in a session will get undone. It may get to the point where a horse becomes unsafe to ride at certain times of the day. I’ve seen many horses train their riders as to what acceptable riding times are and exactly when those working hours are over.
Having your horse turn into a clock Nazi is bad enough but my primary concern centers around introducing aggression. Here is where things can get really out of hand. Simply put, you are teaching your horse to act with hostility when you put him in a situation where he is forced to defend his pile of hay from his herd mates. Once brought out, this aggression will remain in his consciousness and can migrate into his other interactions. Put plainly, if you bring out his inner bully often enough at feeding time there’s a very good chance it will stay out.
If it remained among horses it would be trouble enough; bullying and mayhem can get to be such an ingrained habit that I’ve known certain cavvies to have a well-deserved reputation as savages. Each new horse coming into the herd has to learn that sort of behavior in order to survive and then passes it on to the next newbie. I’ve seen it reach the point where some new horses are permanently crippled when first introduced into a cavvy. But an even bigger problem, at least as far as you may be concerned, is when a horse takes those harsh lessons and begins to apply them to people. Trust me, you do not want to be seen as one more challenge to a full belly by a horse who knows what to do about it. We are after all, slower and smaller and we sometimes get in the way of the hay. Even the lowest horse in the pecking order may pick up on this “feed aggression” and display it toward an especially timid human at feeding time. If that person reacts improperly…the snowball is officially rolling.
How do you know if it’s starting to roll with you? It’s very simple; if you don’t feel perfectly safe feeding, you’re not. Even if it all it amounts to is you rushing to put out feed to stay ahead of the onslaught it still means your horse or horses are pushing your boundary. That snowball is starting to turn. By the time you’ve resorted to throwing hay over the fence in self-defense—look out, Frosty, the avalanche is here.
Remember that you are ALWAYS working with your horse and he is always evaluating the way you do your job. One way of thinking about it is like this, if your horse clearly understands it’s not okay to threaten you and/or shove you around when he’s frenzied at feeding time, the rest of the time will be a piece of cake. Looked at in this way the simple act of feeding is actually a very important part of your training regimen.
So what do you do if your horse wears fangs to dinner? First off, always keep yourself safe, hooves can fly and horses can be pretty fast and aggressive when it comes to what they see as survival of the fittest. They might call your bluff—which, incidentally, is why I don’t bluff at feeding time. Many folks with kind hearts and the best of intentions get conflicted regarding the ethics of introducing some discipline to a time that brings so much joy to their horses. They may not feel good about keeping everyone in line which can actually make things worse. Here are a few ways of looking at it that may help clarify:
1) It’s your hay until you give it to your horse.
2) It is not fair to punish your horse for being hungry but it is never wrong to create a safe boundary around yourself.
3) It is dangerous to yourself, others, other horses and ultimately to your horse to let feeding time behaviors get out of hand.
4) Read the paragraph that begins, Remember you are always working with your horse…that should cover any other questions.
I’ll go over some practices that have helped me deal with the sort of horse who wears fangs to dinner. I’ve heard and read a lot of intricate training tips regarding this subject but I don’t think it is actually all that complicated. First off, your demeanor is important (see #1 above). Don’t act like a victim and invite your horse to steal your hay. This is true even if your horse lives in a box stall and you have one of those cool back doors for loading hay in his manger. If he’s pinning his ears and glaring at you and you go ahead and toss hay in his manger, what is he to conclude? That he ran you off, of course. You may simply be in a hurry and think you don’t have time to fool with it but —sorry—it doesn’t matter as much what you think as what your horse thinks; in this case, you’ve just made yourself his wimpy servant.
This is what a good boundary should look like; these horses are waiting peacefully at a safe, respectful distance. I’m standing just behind the bale; well out of range should any “horseplay” occur (see #2 above).
These horses have known the rules from an early age; the bay on the left was born on this place and is the dominant horse in the herd. The two in the middle are yearlings and the other bay is a two year old. They take their cues from the boss.
Being in the horse business we sometimes acquire horses unfamiliar with the concept of boundaries. Generally speaking it doesn’t take much more than an assured look and perhaps a finger shake to get them with the program but on occasion we’ll get one that has developed a bad habit. He might have had prior success at getting a human away from “his” hay. In order to change that I may have to keep (firmly) sending him off to show him I’m not impressed. I’m not trying to punish or get even, I’m merely establishing my boundary. I’ll do this until he stands for a moment without threatening me or the other horses. Usually this will de-escalate the situation. All the while I remain aware of how fast and how far a horse can turn and kick. If it’s really serious I might carry my flag with me or a broom, anything that will keep him at a safe distance until he learns it’s faster to wait than it is to hurry an old ranch hand. Sometimes this takes a few days or more and quite a lot of extra work (and persistence) but in my experience it’s always been well worth the trouble.
There are ways to put your hay out that will prevent a lot of these common feeding time troubles and other ways that may exacerbate them. For example, simply putting out two piles of hay for two horses—even if you space them a fair distance apart—may not limit aggression. The more dominant horse will likely start eating from the first pile you put out and then run the less dominant horse off the next pile in case it’s better hay. He might repeat this several times just to be sure. In the process he learns how to be a cannibal and both horses rush to gorge themselves causing the digestive problems we talked about earlier. Here are a few things that have worked for me:
1) Feed three times a day. Any horse in my care that is kept in will get at least three hay meals. If he also gets grain it will come to him as a separate feeding or in some cases, two extra feedings.
2) Always put out more portions of feed than the number of horses being fed. This is true even if you are only feeding one horse.
3) Divide it up into small parts. While I haven’t tested this using the scientific method I do know that the most natural way for horses to eat is to take a bite or a few and then move on a step or two before taking some more. I try to let them mimic this as much as possible with my winter feeding. Horses have always seemed to me to be more relaxed, to eat slower and to waste less when fed this way.
4) Spread hay around as much and as randomly as possible, that way if one gets chased off it’s not such a big deal. Again this is unscientific, but in observing horses eat I’ve always felt that less dominant horses yield sooner and are not as apt to get hurt by more aggressive herd mates when they know there are more piles of feed waiting all around. These are the two lowest horses in the pecking order. They are more comfortable eating at a distance from their less inhibited pals. They often graze about this same distance apart from their fellows in the summer.
5) Provide pasture or at least turnout. Movement is an essential part of the equation. This is why just dumping a round bale in the horse pen doesn’t always prevent infighting or even some of the digestive troubles some horses suffer. Although constant access to hay should satisfy your horse’s need to chew as well as his fiber requirements, many horses will see a round bale as one giant flake they need to protect. Since they know they can’t just go out and find more they may aggressively defend what’s there and stuff themselves sick while staking out their territorial claim.
I came to know how serious manger rage could be many years ago. I was at a new client’s place and this person explained to me where her colt was and said that there was some grain in a barrel on her back porch if I wanted it for her palomino pet. Not knowing when that horse had last eaten I thought it might be a good idea. I scooped a little into a bucket and headed for the horse corral. Reaching it, I saw no filly but I did see a feed pan in the middle of the pen. As I came through the gate carrying that bucket, a thousand pounds of golden fury hurtled itself at me from under the loafing shed and sank its fangs deep into my left forearm. The good news? ...I’d found the horse.
The bad news? …She’d found me! Since that was the arm attached to the grain I couldn’t even use the bucket to fend her off. She did not seem inclined to let go. I’d call it a standoff but in truth, she was winning and winning big. I probably should have just dropped the bucket but that would not have been the cowboy way (plus I, um, didn’t think of it at the time). I finally got ahold of her upper lip with my other hand and gave it a twist, at which point she let go and we immediately set about re-sorting the pecking order. But it never should have happened.
Later on, when I mentioned it to the owner she said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, we never go in there with her when she’s eating. It upsets her. We slide her feed pan under the gate.”
It upsets her??? There was now someone more upset about it than her. I made sure to bring a bucket of grain and feed that mare in the middle of the pen every day thereafter. I was forewarned and forearmed and I considered it an essential part of her training. At least both of us got a good lesson from it.