For some horses and ponies, the anticipation (and excitement) of waiting for their feed bucket to be delivered at feed time is overwhelming and it triggers undesired behaviour, such as kicking on the stable door. For the more seasoned stable-door-kicker, it’s surprising how hard and loud they can strike the barrier between them and their food too without (hopefully) getting injured.

But injury, and avoiding it, is always a concern and being able to keep your horse calm and happy around feed time can be a challenge. Equine behaviour consultant Sarah Clark shares how you can alleviate the stress of his feed time at both ends of the day.

Door kicking is usually a learned behaviour. It’s difficult for horse owners to ignore incessant door kicking, but by feeding something to pacify the horse or even by shouting “quiet!” we pay more attention to the horse and they learn quickly that kicking the door brings what they want, faster.

At times when losing weight might be crucial for your horse or pony’s health, a change in feeding routine can result in aggression or anxiety around food, and lead to behaviours such as kicking the door.

We know animals love routine. By keeping a very strict routine, however, we make a rod for our own backs. This is because some horses quickly learn to anticipate and this is when frustration or anxiety-linked behaviour can creep in.

The solution lies in tweaking your horse’s routine so any anticipation or frustration is kept to a minimum. Here’s how:

1. Anticipate their anticipation

If possible, take your horse away from their stable before any food anticipation starts, and bring them back once the food is in. That way, you minimise any anticipatory behaviour.

Horses learn fast to associate certain triggers with receiving food. This could be someone approaching with a bowl, or just the sound of the feed bin. Even other horses looking alert around ‘that time’ of the day can be enough to trigger unwanted behaviour. A useful rule of thumb is to ignore bad behaviour (if safe to do so) and reward good.

2. Nullify the noise

If safe to do so, firmly attach rubber matting or thick sponge to the inside of the stable door to quieten the door kicking. The padding will make it easier for everyone to ignore them and, in turn, help to re-educate your horse not to kick, as well as prevent any concussion.

3. Provide a different ‘reward’

A horse who bangs and bangs on their door, only stopping when their feed bucket is dropped in, is getting what they want and so in their mind, their door banging was a success and they’ll do it again next time.

Giving your horse an empty feed bowl if they kick the door can help break this vicious circle. They will stop associating the ‘reward’ of food with their behaviour of kicking, as you’ll be changing the consequence for them. Feeding them only once they’ve stood still and quietly will teach a new ‘reward’ for their good behaviour.

4. Make feed last longer

Naturally, horses would spend at least 12 hours a day grazing, so follow these tips to increase the time your horse spends eating, whilst keeping their weight down if you need to:

  • Use small-holed haynets spread around the stable.
  • Soak hay, which will reduce its nutritional content and take longer for them to eat.
  • Avoid feed bowls and scatter feed instead. Foraging is a more natural way to eat and will avoid bolting, plus it will keep them stimulated for a longer time.

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