Q:I have a 2-year-old Fox Trotter gelding that seems to always be in a bad mood. He hardly ever puts his ears forward, unless he is focusing on a sound in the distance--even then he puts them straight backwards when he's finished "listening." Snickers is the smallest in my herd of four, and he's the youngest. He has never been "top dog" here, and he is always getting picked on, so he is not getting any reinforcement from the herd to be dominant.

His behavior becomes worse around feeding time. He shakes his head around, has started swinging his rear around when we come near him, and he is generally a trial to be with. I do have a neighbor that owns animals in the same space as my horses, and she feeds them treats. We have spoken to her about this, and the treating has slowed down, but not before Snickers has come to expect treats from her. He is especially rotten around her now. He will go after dogs, the donkey, the llamas, and the goats when she is around.

Snickers seems to be in excellent health, so I wouldn't suspect that his behavior is the result of being uncomfortable or in pain. He can be a manageable horse, but he's hardly ever pleasant. I have begun searching around for stables to send him for training, but I would be embarrassed to send this terror to anyone to deal with. I need help, advice, whatever you can give me; I'm getting desperate!

Thank you, and thanks for those inquiries you answer in The Horse.

Elese Shepherd

A: Well, even though Snickers seems to be in excellent health, and it is tempting to attribute his undesirable behavior to social, learning, dominance, and other nonphysical problems, the first thing I would have evaluated is whether or not he has gastric ulcers. One of the most amazing findings of recent years is that many horses, even young ones, have ulcers. Young horses in stressful social situations, such as you describe for Snickers, appear to be at increased risk of getting ulcers. And behavior exactly as you describe is often the first and only conspicuous sign of gastric ulcers.

While some horses with gastric ulcers show the classic signs of being picky eaters and poor keepers with dull hair coats, many can look pretty healthy. Horses with gastric ulcers can be just as you describe--crabby or in a bad mood with ears back most of the time. And just like you describe Snickers, horses with gastric ulcers also tend to show food-related aggression and urgency to be fed.

For sure, there can be behavioral explanations for the food-aggressive behavior, and I agree the treats should be eliminated for this horse, but my recommendation would be to have your veterinarian evaluate this horse for gastric ulcers. He or she can do this by passing an endoscope to visualize the stomach. If Snickers has ulcers, your veterinarian can prescribe ways for treating them.

It would be my expectation that if Snickers has gastric ulcers, when they are relieved his mood will immediately improve. The background crankiness should just evaporate.

If Snickers does have gastric ulcers, when they are treated the food-related aggression might not immediately diminish. It likely has a learned component to it, even if gastric ulcers were the principal factor. To eliminate that problem, I would recommend keeping him on a diet of grass and grass hay only and eliminating the highly palatable grain meals and treats. When other animals are fed or given treats, it would be best to separate Snickers.

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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