Rude for Food

Q. My yearling colt came from a place where he was kept with a group of yearlings.  All were fed their grain in buckets along a fence line, with the buckets hung on posts. I now have him in with one other yearling, a filly that I got at the same time from the same place.  When I go out to feed, they both run up anxiously awaiting their stipend.  The colt is very impolite. He lays back his ears and turns his hind end toward me offering to kick me. Of course, I immediately put down his bucket to get him to stop.  Then I proceed to the filly. How do I change this rude behavior without scaring him away from me? I would like him to allow me to approach him. He is still quite leery of me.


A. What a great description of a common problem scenario.  This food-related aggression is a natural behavior for achieving access to a highly palatable limited resource (the grain). This behavior has been inadvertently reinforced by a continuous schedule of giving the grain. In the colt's mind, he learned that he has to be aggressive in order to get his supper. Even though the behavior does seem rude and frustrating, it probably represents a healthy ability to learn by association.  That means he should be able to learn alternative behavior that will be more "gentlemanly" and safe.  The procedure I have used to correct it will simultaneously eliminate the aggressive behavior and overcome the leeriness.  As a bonus, he will learn to tie and to stand quietly on command.  This is my usual recommendation for the procedure.

Start by haltering the colt. Attach a short catch-cord (24-inches or so of lightweight string or leather strap) from the halter's lower ring (under the chin).  At feeding time, go out to the pasture area with the bucket of grain. Leave the bucket outside the pasture, a few paces from the gate. Stand at the gate and hold a few grains of sweet feed in an outstretched hand. Just stand quietly waiting for the colt and/or filly to investigate.  When one or the other takes the treat, close the gate, say "good," then go get a handful of grain and return. Repeat the handout gesture several times. Every time feed is taken from your hand, say the word "good" in a calm and consistent tone. Do this until all of the grain is gone. It might take 30 minutes the first time.  The point of the first lesson is for the colt and filly to come to you and to learn the conditioned stimulus "good," and to do something quiet and positive for the feed reinforcement. I recommend feeding them the entire supper from your hand on this Day 1 of the procedure.

On Day 2 repeat Day 1, but after a few hand-fed handfuls, try quietly and calmly to get a hand on the colt's halter (or on the catch-cord).  The first couple of times you might have to feed and catch simultaneously.  If he is leery of being caught, you can say the word "good" to reassure him. He should by now associate that word with a positive result. If you're not successful with the catching, return to more hand-feeding for awhile, then go back to trying to catch him. Once you are successful with catching the colt, repeat the hand-feeding, each time waiting until he will allow you to catch him before the feed is given. Continue to say the word "good" each time the colt is taking the feed. Repeat until all the feed is gone.  The lesson will reinforce and extend the lessons of Day 1 to include approaching you calmly, head first, and offering to be caught in order to get a treat.

On Day 3 continue as on Day 2, but after a few handfuls, lead the colt to a fence post, reinforcing him for each step with a handful of his supper and the word "good." Once he is near the post, feed him the rest of his supper one handful at a time. If he hasn't already, he might start getting grabby for handfuls. In a calm, pleasant voice say "stand," wait until he stands quietly, then give the grain.  The point is for him to go to the post with you and to learn to stand there.  The previously learned lessons also will be reinforced.

On Day 4 stand by his post with an outstretched hand, and wait for the colt to come to you.  When he gets there, attach him to the post with a tie (with a quick-release of some sort), say "stand," and give him a handful of feed. Do the same for the filly. (I would always tie the colt first; since he seems to be the more aggressive, he might attack her when she's tied).  Then attach each of their supper buckets to a post.

Gradually, you can use the word "good" intermittently without the grain treat. You will see that it has taken on special reinforcing qualities and can be as nearly effective in reinforcing the desired behavior as the grain itself. It will be a handy tool when you don't have grain or don't have a free hand to dispense grain.  Actually, you can choose any word to be the conditioned reinforcer. You just have to use the same word in the same tone of voice.

You can stop here or continue to teach all sorts of lessons within the context of this feeding ritual. For really aggressive horses, I also have taught the "back" and "stand" command sequence to get them to back up a few steps and wait for me to present the feed bucket.  A horse cannot lunge forward for feed or turn and offer to kick while it is backing up.

Teaching the horse to stand calmly or to back up a few steps and to stand instead of charging in order to get his feed is called counter-conditioning.  This behavior modification procedure simply involves eliminating an undesirable behavior by teaching another behavior that is counter to it. Counter-conditioning typically is more effective than you would intuitively expect with aggressive horses. It always seems easier for them to do something else rather than to stop doing something and just do nothing.

There is a newly popularized procedure for horses known as clicker and target training that long has been used with schooling performing wild animals, and more recently with dogs.  The learning principles are the same.  The clicker is the equivalent of the conditioned reinforcer "good." It is unique, not threatening, and a very standard auditory stimulus that the horse associates very quickly with the food reward.  The target can be used as the equivalent of the feeding post in our example.  The horse learns to go to or follow the positive target.

Hope this goes as smoothly for you as it has for me and other clients with whom I have worked in person.

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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