But My Horse Is Aggressive Around Food....
Updated: Feb 28
How do you use, or can you even use, food rewards with horses that are pushy and aggressive around food?
First, yes. You can, and even SHOULD, use food rewards when working with horses that are pushy and aggressive around food. You just need to learn HOW, and you also need to resolve the CAUSE of the food anxiety.
Horses are VERY food motivated animals, since they are designed to be seeking food the majority of their lives, it's pretty much ALWAYS on their minds; think horse grazing/searching for grass 17 +/- hours a day. This makes food a powerful motivator and a fantastic "paycheck"/reward during training.
If however the horse goes long periods throughout the day without food, or has been starved in their past, or they have been taught that acting aggressively gets the food, you may find yourself struggling with a little TOO much food motivation from your horse. Which usually looks like pushiness, biting, open mouth treat taking, kicking, cranky face, charging, and maybe more. This however, is not "normal" or just "how it is", and withholding food more or punishing the horse isn't going to help. Instead, MORE food is the answer.
No more fasting periods throughout the day
Offer slow feeder hay nets (preferably always full)
Turn out of longer periods throughout the day/night (24/7 is ideal)
Don't punish the horse for doing what's natural to them
Seeking food (aka mugging, pushiness, "in your pocket")
Keep another food sources available during training
Work on grass
Have hay very close by (even under foot)
Soaked hay pellets in a pan
Make sure your horse has recently eaten before training
Had breakfast or dinner recently
Had at least a couple hours to graze prior to training
Work with a very low value food reward
Something that is the same value as the the food available, or just barely better
Typically plain hay pellets are what I work with.
The goal is to make the food you have "less desirable"
Train with a safe setup until new behaviors can be established
Start off training with a fence or stall door between you and the horse
Feed from a pan or a bucket in the beginning and periodically later on
No more arbitrarily giving treats for pushy behaviors
Reward inside the fence, not over
Don't give food for cute but potentially undesirable behaviors like pawing, open mouths etc.
Discourage guests and other horse owners from passing out treats randomly
Don't give the horse food for "begging"
Only giving food for the behaviors you DO want to see.
Give food away from your body, where you want the horse to be standing (hold it out away from you)
Knuckles up first (see below) until the mouth is gentle
Reward anything calm and relaxed where their head/mouth are not on your body.
These are the basics to helping with the emotional aspects that drive food anxiety, but there are a few more details you should know before getting started though, and for those I recommend checking out my blog "how to get started with clicker training" and and any of the books recommend on my website's resources page
Food Anxiety with Blue
Blue is a 3 year old lovely mare that is SUPER food motivated, but has been fed treats when she's practically coming through the fence at the human and with an open mouth, teeth first. She's also very pushy and demanding when there is no fence and will aggressively attack other horses and people that come near her food.
For the first couple sessions we worked with a feed pan, click/reward for her staying on her side of the fence while she learned what the click sound meant and how to target two different kinds of targets. As I saw her brain start to put together the pieces of the puzzle I watched her anxiety around food drop. "AH! If I touch this target the click happens which means food is coming", we slowly started to introduce taking food from my hand.. which has been another learning experience for her!
In the beginning I had to keep my hand closed in a fist (offering it knuckles up, as seen in video) as she tried to figure out how to get to the food in my hand with her teeth first and then would either do lips or move her mouth away. For either of those responses I would flip over and open my hand to offer the food to a GENTLE mouth. I promise, it took maybe three tries and she had it figured out. No more trying to take my fingers WITH the food. Of course we have some refining to do, but she's a quick study!
You'll notice though... I didn't START here, as this is the first time working with my hands and she had done at least five sessions by this time. If I had tried working with my hands (especially without a fence) right away it wouldn't have ended well for anyone. I would