Rude for Food

How do I change a colt’s rude behavior at feeding time without scaring him?

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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

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Written by:

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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