Pasture Feeding Aggression

How do I change my yearling colt’s rude behavior without scaring him away from me?

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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 which 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.—Debbie, Florida

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) that has been inadvertently reinforced on a continuous schedule by the inevitable bailing out and giving the grain. In the colt’s mind, he learned that he has to do that in order to get his supper. Even though it 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 putting a halter with a short catch-cord (24-inches or so of lightweight string or leather strap) dangling from the 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 with an outstretched hand that has a few grains of sweet feed. 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 this procedure.

On Day 2, repeat Day 1, but after a few hand-fed handfuls, try quietly and calmly to get a hand on the halter (or on the catch-cord) of the colt. The first couple times you might have to simultaneously feed and catch. 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

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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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