The nickers of an eager horse at feeding time can warm your heart, but the incessant clatter of a horse kicking his stall door demanding dinner can wear your patience thin.
Thankfully, horses rarely hurt themselves by pawing for dinner. Beyond an occasional bruised knee, a horse who acts up at mealtime isn’t a danger to himself. However, the behavior can be hard on your stall door, walls and floors.
Your first instinct may to be yell at a horse to knock it off, but those who paw, kick or otherwise raise a racket at mealtimes aren’t doing it simply to be obnoxious. The behavior is a manifestation of food-related anxiety that’s better addressed with management changes than with reprimands.
The best solution is to divide the horse’s ration into several smaller meals delivered throughout the day; four or more is ideal. Such a schedule limits any hunger and anticipation that may build up between bigger, less frequent meals.
If you can’t space out your horse’s meals, try feeding the loudest horse first. Don’t worry: This isn’t reinforcing the behavior. He’s not going to learn to be quiet if he’s the last one fed, only that he has to bang his door longer to get food to appear. Try feeding him first, before the banging begins, even if it’s just a quick handful until you deliver the rest of the ration. You can also try throwing in a flake of hay before the grain to see if that takes the edge off an anxious diner.
Keep in mind that sometimes mealtime neighbors egg each other on. If two horses in adjacent stalls regularly paw and squeal at each other, try separating them for a few meals or even isolating them. Some horses feel more secure when they can dine privately.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #448, January 2015.