Q&A: Help for a stall kicker

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We have a mare at the barn who spends most of her time out in the pasture with her Miniature Horse friend. She is put in her stall next to her buddy at feeding time and only for a short period while the other horses are fed. She kicks the boards of her stall walls and door very hard if any horse gets anywhere near her stall or if she can even see them. While she is loose, she will even kick the barn at horses who are in their stalls. She has broken large boards, and we are afraid she is going to hurt herself. She sometimes kicks out even when there are no horses around. Can you offer any advice on how to change her behavior? Moving her to another area is not an option.

grumpy face

Jami Robinson
Umatilla, Florida

The first step with any behavioral problem is to rule out a physical cause. Given that your mare occasionally kicks out with no other horses around, we’d recommend scheduling a veterinary examination. Any problem that causes pain can increase aggression---uncomfortable horses are more “grouchy,” just as many people are. You’d also want to rule out a granulosa cell tumor, a growth in the ovaries that produces hormones that may, among other things, cause a mare to be aggressive.

Once a physical cause has been ruled out, the next step is to try to determine this mare’s motivation. She is not trying to destroy the barn. From your description, the most likely motivation is resource guarding---she does not want any other horses to steal her food.

Your best approach to stopping this behavior may be simply to avoid it. If she is most aggressive in her stall at feeding time, we would suggest not feeding her in her stall. If she needs only hay, provide that in the pasture. We recommend a hay net with small holes so that she will have to spend all day eating to get her ration. You could also try other devices that weigh down a bale of hay so the horse can eat it only slowly.

If your mare must have grain, she could still be fed in her pasture---at the end opposite the barn. We’d also suggest feeding her first. Having to wait for her feed will not make her more patient; it will make her more frustrated and, therefore, more aggressive.
If she absolutely must be fed grain in the stall, try to minimize visual contact by blocking her view of other horses to the side and in front so there are fewer threats to her meal. One possibility is to have her wear blinders to minimize her view to each side.

Another interesting experiment might be to try feeding your mare in a nosebag. Although she hasn’t learned that the other horses can’t get into her stall to steal her food, she might realize that they can’t get into her nosebag.

Finally, you can take advantage of modern veterinary medicine. There are medications that decrease aggression that could be used to reduce your mare’s kicking and possibly her appetite as well. Talk with your veterinarian about the best options for your horse.

Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD,
DACVB
Animal Behavior Consultants
of Northern Michigan
Gaylord, Michigan

Jill Sackman, DVM, PhD, DACVS
BluePearl Veterinary Partners
of Michigan
Grand Rapids, Michigan

This month’s experts:

Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB, operates Animal Behavior Consultants of Northern Michigan, where she sees horses, dogs and cats with behavior problems. She is a James Law professor emerita of behavior medicine at Cornell University, where her research interests included domestic animal welfare—specifically in improving research environments, studying the behavior of domestic horses, donkeys and Przewalski’s horses, and researching the physiological basis of equine ingestive and maternal behavior. She is also board certified through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

Jill Sackman, DVM, PhD, DACVS, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and the senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners of Michigan. She is now working under the mentorship of Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, to pursue residency training in animal behavior. She earned her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Michigan State University and her PhD from the University of Tennessee.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #466, July 2016.