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Retraining the Defensive Eater

By Edited Jun 3, 2014 1 0

Toddler with horses
Credit: Simply Marvelous WordPress

Defensive Eaters

Retraining the Defensive Horse

Horses love to eat.  Having daily turnout time where they can graze connects them back to the time of their ancestor's nomadic life.  Wild horses still walk and graze for miles in rocky terrain foraging for food.  Of course, domesticated horses are not dependent on wild foraging. Grazing is more of an activity, since the bulk of their day is confined to a small area where they eat, sleep, and watch over the fence for entertainment.  Most horses are instructed and guided from birth to understand interaction with humans. They even prefer the company of their owners rather than standing alone all day.  The horses in the photo above are clearly enjoying the attention the toddler is giving them. These horses can be trusted not to bite or kick when someone approaches them, or hands them a treat, even if that person is a wandering toddler.

But feral horses, or other horses who spend their formative years trapped in neglect or abuse, develop a view of humans as predators. Young horses, or newly caught wild horses, trapped with owners who withhold their food, shout at them, or inflict pain through harsh training methods, these horses cannot distinguish the human from any other predator who threatens their safety. This is why they resort to using defensive behavior. They become biters, kickers, and chargers.  To onlookers, such an animal looks (and is) too dangerous to be around. If the horse is part of a herd and fears for the safety of the herd, it will use deadly force to protect its mates.  At mealtime, you will see this behavior escalate in horses who fear that having their head down makes them vulnerable to attack.  These are the types of horses who become dangerously defensive eaters.  Can this kind of horse ever become safer?   Yes, these horses are rehabilitated, but not overnight, or in one training session. The behavior that took years to imprint needs length of time to unlearn. If the handler understands the reason for the horse's behavior they can begin a new track of training that will replace the horse's fear with confidence. To isolate this type of horse and apply even more physical force on the assumption that this will induce submission only serves to engage more brutality.

I once cared for a rescue horse who was so dangerous at feeding time we could only drop the food over the gate then run! He bent his metal gate by body-slamming it at full force, several times. If grazing in the pasture he was off-limits to visitors as he would charge and attack anything that wandered inside his pasture, including dogs or other horses.  But within two months he had changed.  While he ate, I could blanket him, lift and inspect his feet, put on his halter, or brush him.   He learned to wait for strangers to put down his food while he stood politely nearby. How?

Horses are blessed with the gift of curiosity and the ability to change when they no longer feel threatened. Therefore their daily environment can be structured to engage their attention and focus, and to subtly integrate humans as a partner and not a threat.  Something as simple as having them watch you place several piles of hay in remote areas, and their water in a far away corner, so that they must search and find them when turned out to pasture, activates their curiosity. Placing a tarp and some wooden poles on the ground for them to learn to walk over, requires them to use their reasoning powers and serves to build their confidence. If their owner is there to cheer them on with each new discovery it will begin to build a bond of trust between them.   Graduating from there to learning the comfort of being brushed, sensibly handled, blanketed or saddled, encourages the horse to let go of the defensive mechanisms he depended upon for survival.

 In the case of my foster horse, when he relaxed enough to show a desire for attention, to be petted and touched,  I  agreed to do so only on the condition that he be eating while I patted him.  Once he became comfortable with that I added cleaning his paddock while he ate. Then I added putting on a blanket, lifting a hoof, and even brushing, while he ate. The process took many weeks, but in view of the many years he offers as a trusted companion in a permanent home, the time is minimal.
Most animals react with defensive behavior because they have felt compromised and endangered. Correcting the cause of their defensiveness, that is, fixing whatever it was that made them feel afraid, just as we correct the cause of an illness or lameness,  can restore harmony.

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