Kicking Out at Feeding Time

My gelding is stall kicking. I'm not there at feeding time, but my trainer tells me the stall kicking occurs when it's feeding time. The same thing happened the last two places he lived. She has tried feeding him first, but that didn't help. His care at this barn couldn't be better, and we are at a loss as to how to stop the kicking. A suggestion was made to me about kicking chains used when he is in the stall; do you know anything about them? It's my understanding this method might break the habit in a few weeks.     Joyce

Kicking or pawing that occurs only at feeding time can be simply a learned behavior resulting from the traditional patterns of feeding domestic horses by providing infrequent, highly palatable meals on a fixed schedule. We typically dispense grain twice a day, at the same time each morning and evening. The fixed schedule, together with the same pre-feeding activities, cues the horse that it is feeding time.

The behavior of grain-fed horses clearly indicates that they anticipate these meals. Even if problem behaviors are not evident, almost all horses normally show changes in activity and behavior suggesting positive anticipation, or the "thwarted goal" or frustration state. As the routine preparations are made, the horse anticipates--but cannot control--access to feed. This normally results in general increased activity and specifically the frustration or thwarted goal-related behaviors such as pawing, circling, head tossing, vocalization, or kicking out. Whatever the horse does just before the grain is dispensed is automatically rewarded by the feed, and so according to the laws of nature, the behavior will continue. Because we continue to go about reinforcing it over and over again, it quickly becomes a serious habit or even a stereotypy that is self-rewarding and can extend beyond the feeding time.

In the case of your horse, at some point while waiting for his caretaker to bring grain, he might have kicked out either in excitement, frustration, food-related aggression, or just by chance. Of course, he was immediately fed, so the grain followed the kicking, essentially as a reward or positive reinforcement.

Pawing is natural in horses in anticipation of food, or "thwarted goal" situations, and so is more often the problem than is kicking. Pawing is a natural, adaptive response of horses in food-related frustration, as they paw snow to get at underlying vegetation, or paw overgrowth to get at tender shoots and roots. But stall-kicking can be a simple learned behavior.

Stall kicking at feeding time can also represent ongoing food-related aggression. The horse is guarding his meal or feed bucket as if the neighbor might take the meal. The behavior would be similar to a horse guarding a bucket from pasturemates. If this seems to be the case, sometimes changing his feeding location can reduce the guarding and kicking behavior.

Kicking or pawing at feeding time might also involve physical components. For example, horses fed grain seem to be at higher risk of developing gastric ulcers than horses on a forage diet. With gastric ulcers, the horse can be increasingly uncomfortable as the "stomach juices start flowing" in anticipation of feeding. When we see kicking or flank biting, as opposed to simple pawing, we feel compelled to aggressively evaluate for possible pain. It would be good to have your horse examined by your veterinarian for gastric ulcers and treated if necessary.

All sorts of physical irritations can be heightened by anticipation, just as we often reach to scratch an itch that seems heightened by the sudden activation of our sympathetic nervous system--my classic example is the sight of the flashing lights of the traffic patrol car coming up from behind. With increased excitement, such as at feeding time, or trailering time, any discomfort-related behavior can be stimulated. Just this week we had a horse in the clinic who was kicking, and sometimes scratching one fetlock with the other hoof (a weird cricket-like maneuver). He was found to have a dermatological condition (chorioptic mange) under his feathers. Once that was treated, the behavior went away. We have had several similar cases of headshaking where the root cause was a physical irritation, and it was associated with feeding time or other times of anticipation.

The obvious question is: "Why does my horse do this and most others don't?" The pattern of feeding domestic horses and the associated anticipatory behavior is in contrast to natural foraging environments and behavior. For horses in natural environments or at pasture, foraging is an ongoing activity throughout the day and night. Large quantities of low-calorie, high-fiber forage are ingested. No anticipatory feeding behavior or food-related aggression is seen. It seems that when horses are stabled and fed infrequent, very palatable grain meals, they are adaptable to the unnatural pattern of foraging. Some seem more susceptible to the adverse physical and psychological effects.

No matter the cause, it's helpful to understand that there likely is a logical explanation for your horse's behavior. The behavior is likely created by domestic conditions, and wouldn't be an issue if the horse were foraging in a more natural manner. Punishment methods, while they might in some cases modify the behavior, are probably not humane. And often they don't work or make matters worse. If at all possible, I first would try maintaining him without any grain, just free access to as much good grass hay as he will eat. I would expect the kicking to go away within a couple of weeks, even if the neighbors are fed grain.

Kicking chains are probably not a humane or safe method. In theory, they should simultaneously restrain movement and provide self-punishment of kicking attempts. However, some horses will injure themselves before they learn not to kick. Physical restraint can exacerbate the problem. Similarly, shock collars and other forms of punishment are not typically effective.

I'd want to be convinced that the behavior problem is a simple learning issue before considering a punishment or physical restraint approach. For example, if gastric ulcers are involved, punishment will likely make matters worse. Sometimes people responsible for such animals can justify a punishment or restraint approach as "for their own good," and in rare instances, I suppose those sort of interventions are warranted. In most cases, there are simple, more humane options. For example, pasture housing might immediately eliminate the cause and the kicking.

Perhaps the most humane and effective way to eliminate kicking, pawing, or any behavior that has developed as a behavioral response to domestic feeding programs, is to provide the horse a more natural diet and access to food--continuous access to hay and/or pasture with no grain. With good pasture or good grass hay, horses in light work can usually be maintained in healthy condition without grain. If grain is essential for a horse in heavy work, a "food ball" or other device that provides slow, continuous access to grain can be effective for some horses.

A food ball looks like a horse toy ball with some small openings where grain can dribble out. Grain is put inside, and as the horse moves the ball, small amounts fall out. So, the horse has to work (or "play") a bit to release small amounts of grain. This gives the horse an activity and control over access to food, much as it would if foraging naturally. The device can be set so that it lasts for a long time, simulating a more natural steady ingestion and feeding behavior pattern. Just as with going to an all-forage diet, this almost immediately eliminates behavior associated with anticipation of meals.

Food balls--sometimes called Edinburgh Food Balls--are not easy to find. There is a company in the United Kingdom called Westgate Equestrian Distributors that sells the Snak a Ball through their distributor Talisker Bay (

Another approach to eliminating a behavior that is simply the result of learning is to ignore the problem behavior and reward only an alternative behavior. In this case, his caretaker could stand outside the stall, ignoring the kicking. As soon as there is a break in the kicking and the horse stands quietly, the feed is dispensed. This takes some effort, patience, and good timing, and the horse might slip back to his former behavior. An important, but easy, mistake is to inadvertently reward the horse by yelling or otherwise responding to the kicking. In a state of frustration, for most horses any attention, even what we would think of as negative, can be rewarding. If nothing else, as with children, provoking punishment gives the horse some control of its environment.

With behavior problems in any species, it can be hard to sort out the primary and secondary behavior issues. An equine behavior specialist experienced with this or similar problems should be able to discern a lot from observing the horse. There are key signs of learned behavior, ongoing food-related aggression, and behavior of discomfort that can often be detected by a trained behaviorist, even from videotaped samples of the horse's behavior in his stall. The behavior specialist will want to be sure that this is only a feeding time issue. It isn't uncommon for painful conditions to be present, but not as evident as at feeding time. If the horse seems uncomfortable in other situations, that's a good clue that there is a physical problem involved. The behavior specialist should be able to work with your veterinary care team to systematically evaluate and treat possible contributing or resulting physical problems. A behavior specialist can also suggest and help implement humane options for eliminating undesirable behavior, no matter what the cause.


McDonnell, S. Feeding Time Pawing. The Horse, November 2002, 70. Article #3893 at

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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