Feed time behavior when it’s gone haywire is incredibly unsafe and hey, as gentle as I like to be, I have no intention of allowing such unsafe behavior to continue.
Please excuse my blunt Aussie language and if swearing offends you, better pick another article, because I tend to swear a bit when I get incredibly passionate about something and I am passionate about this.
Bugger riding…If you’ve got feed time problems, then bugger riding, you just shouldn’t be doing it – a feed time problem is more important to fix than anything else you do.
If you’ve got feed time difficulties you are ABSOLUTELY going to have a LOAD of tension in your riding too and you are NEVER going to get any sort of poetry from a horse that is so disconnected from you and looking at you as some sort of adversary at feed time.
AND it’s incredibly unsafe.
Solving feed time blues
If you put into action The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse, they will help you to solve all but the serious feed time problems. The first four keys will help you get a deeper connection to your horse and the sixth key uses that connection to focus on feed time. You’re also welcome to Ask Jenny a Question which you’ll find at the top of every page, if you have difficulties that aren’t solved easily with those lessons.
This article is particularly about solving feed problems in a stable or barn
This article has been written with the assumption that you are familiar with those 9 Keys to Happiness.
The first thing to understand is that this IS NOT a “bad” horse or even a naughty horse – those words seems to imply that these desperate and misunderstood horses are somehow at fault for their behavior. He is not a pig or a bastard of a horse or a mongrel. She is not a bitch or a cow or any of the other unpleasant names I’ve heard horses called when someone doesn’t know how to solve a problem.
It is simply a misunderstood horse or even one that has never been taught simple boundaries at feed time in a way that was understood – but it is NEVER a bad horse. Sit with that thought for a minute because this attitude is incredibly important to success.
Pick and choose the ideas from this article that suit and above all else – listen to your own fear AND TAKE ACTION ON IT TO KEEP YOURSELF SAFE – AT ALL TIMES. Never, ever, EVER ignore your fear – THAT’s the thing that’s dangerous.
I would hang the feed bin over the stable door to start off with so that I could keep myself safe while I change things – especially with a horse who has become aggressive or pushy.
Stay outside the stable and start with the communication you learned in the first lesson of The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse. The horse can be hiding at the back of the box, you don’t even need to see them to start this communication. I personally wouldn’t be going in that box until that horse showed a relaxed interest in me and that I was relaxed and feeling peaceful too. There’s not much point in trying to expand a comfort zone that doesn’t exist – it’s an impossibility! The Comfort Zone Model is explained in detail in the 2nd Key to Happiness.
Then use the approach and retreat that you learned in the Fourth Key – about catching your horse – to get closer and closer to the door – using that early warning signal that something is Not Quite Right to know when to back away and wait for the horse to lick and Chew. This time of waiting is the most important time of your “training”. It gives the horse a chance to think and to process the information in a brain that is probably seriously distressed – and that takes time, specially at the beginning. If they look sleepy they’re processing – make sure that you wait for the lick and chew and sigh and stretch that will eventually happen.
When you can approach and retreat from the door, without a feed in your arms and your horse can stay relaxed and interested in you, then you are ready to start working with a feed.
Be quite clear in your mind about what you are looking for. I would be looking for my horse to be able to take a step back and give me room when I asked, relaxed and waiting for me to put his feed in the feeder. I probably wouldn’t walk in with a feed to start off with, I’d more likely want to start easy with a feeder hung over the inside of the door.
There’s a lot of pressure in the confined area of a stable, so you’re going to have to be even more particular about listening to your early warning signal that something is Not Quite Right, than your paddocked friends.
Using your hand, use the smallest and gentlest of the gestures that I showed you in The Sixth Key video to ask your horse to stand back and wait while you approach the door with their feed. Any time YOU feel anxious, I want you to step away from the door again and wait for the horse to lick and chew. You could do some of the breathing and quiet mind connection work that you learn in 21 Days to a Quiet Mind. Make sure that you’re smiling gently and that you’re prepared to take however long this takes.
In a confined space like this, there are probably two things going to be going on here while you are doing this – the horse will be learning not to be afraid of your asking them to stand back – while they are learning about what you want them to do AND learning that not only do YOU want to feel safe feeding up, you want THEM to feel safe too.
So use your feeling of Not Quite Right that you have developed, to know when to back away and maybe even next time to use smaller ways of asking them to stand back politely and wait. And yes it can take practice to get good at talking action on that feeling that something is not quite right, but hey – this one is abso… bloody…lutely worth the practice. And the key to success is to take action on every single one…
And keep approaching and retreating from the door, each time waiting for The Chew before moving forwards again – no matter how long it takes for your horse to lick and Chew.
Do this approach and retreat until you can get to the door and put the food in the feeder with the horse relaxed and still interested in you.
If I had to deal with a really scared or upset horse, I would be doing all of the above before I even thought about going into the stable.
I would be working outside the box until my horse was relaxed and happy in this process, then I would start to think about going into the stable to feed.
With a really scared or upset horse, that I wanted to be able to get in and out of the box at feed time, safely, I would break the whole thing down into baby steps and use the same procedure as above, to approach and retreat.
One baby step may be as small as opening and closing the door. Another might be to open the door, wait a moment, close the door, back away and wait for The Chew.
Another baby step may be stepping into the doorway and asking them to step away from me with a hand gesture. I would ask them to step away in my mind, then with a rhythmic hand gesture like you saw in the video, then I would stop, close the door, back away and wait for The Chew – even if they didn’t give me what I wanted. Because we don’t want to add pressure to their fear or confusion or resistance. Because that would increase their fear or confusion or aggression or resistance.
These are just ideas, not set in cement. All the time, I would be using my feelings of Not Quite Right to know when to back off and each time I backed off I would be waiting for The Chew no matter how long that took.
The next baby step may be stepping inside the box. Another may be walking over to the feed bin inside the box.
All this time, holding the awareness of your own body, holding your attention inside your own body so that you can notice what changes and keep yourself safe. And help any poor, dangerous horses feel safe so that they don’t need to be dangerous any more.
I’ve come across some really upset and dangerous horses in stables, particularly in the racing industry. I remember one poor little soul at Moonee Valley who was so dangerous that one person held her in the corner with a pitchfork, while the other mucked out her box. I was at the very beginning of this work back then and she turned over to me so fast I hardly had time to blink. They’re desperate, not bad…
Come back to me with an email if this is a problem that needs more help. NOBODY – horse or human should be feeling unsafe at feed time.
Today’s photo of a stallion in Tunisia is by the very talented Michelle Brannan from Perth in Western Australia.