Horse Pecking Order at Feeding Time - Equine Behavior


May 2008

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Pecking Order at Feeding Time

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

Dear Cherry,

We've recently purchased an acreage, crossed fenced much of the property, ran water and electric lines out to a Nelson waterer, and purchased a loafing shed. We'd love to build a barn after reading several of Richard's books. They really give you the bug!

We adopted 2 horses from a local rescue. Our mare, "Sally" is part Clydesdale and part Morgan. She is a big girl! She is about 5 years. Our gelding is "Jericho". He is about 7 and a smaller sized quarter horse. Both needed some good nutrition and love. After a very windy winter, both are looking great! Sally, who was over-weight and had foundered in the past (and why I think she was sent to rescue) has lost weight and the farrier says her hooves are looking like a different horse!

She had been anxious in the past about him touching some of them, and now is much more relaxed after a winter of hoof and founder supplements. Jericho has more energy than ever and loves running around the pasture for the pure joy of it. He didn't do that last fall.

Both are gentle and sweet to me and usually to one another. Until just recently. I had been feeding them hay on the ground, which I distributed into a few piles - usually a flake or so. This was fine. But my neighbor said she was concerned about her horses eating dirt with the hay, since grass is sparse in our pastures. So I bought a big Rubbermaid stock tank and have been putting their hay into that.

Sally has begun biting at Jericho however. So I bought a second tub so they could have separate areas to feed. They both want to eat out of the same one (kids!). Sally seems to have stopped biting him, but now turns her back to him and threatens to kick or buck him. Luckily, he's very fast and can easily get out of her way, but she's clearly showing him she is boss. She has never done this to me and is always good. I'm not sure if this is worse during her cycle or not.

I guess I could go back to feeding them on the ground as she did not act this way until recently when I began using the tubs. I know she is reminding him she is dominant, but I don't want that behavior and I am also fearful that he's not able to eat enough as she scares him away from the hay. Sometimes she shares well. And they are often affectionate to one another outside of the feeding situation.

What should I do about this behavior?

Sincerely, Dan

Hi Dan,

First of all, congratulations on purchasing acreage and setting up the facilities. And how lucky for Sally and Jericho to have been adopted by you !

In general terms, what you describe is happening at feeding time is normal pecking order behavior between horses. What seems fairly extreme to us is perfectly normal horse behavior. Domesticated horses still have very deeply rooted instincts and behavior they have inherited from their ancestors. I have several articles posted that relate to behavior, that talk about pecking order. You likely have already read them, but I'm going to point them out to other readers.

Nature of the Horse

How Horses Learn

When Good Horses Do Bad Things


How to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillIn addition, in my book How to Think Like a Horse, I offer information that helps view the world from a horse's perspective. This is valuable reading for we two leggeds.


Several factors are contributing to the behavior of your two horses:

It is feeding time. As you suggest, feeding is when we see the pecking order conflicts most graphically.

Sally and Jericho are two very different horses. Sally, the dominant horse is larger and a mare; Jericho, the less dominant horse is smaller and a gelding. When you think of survival of the fittest, this just makes sense. The larger horse prevails. And the horse with the strongest survival instinct will be most aggressive and insistent. In this case, the mare has hormonal influences that tell her she needs to eat, breed and raise offspring while a gelding's hormones have been altered and he is just eating to satisfy his hunger. He also probably enjoys the company and protection that Sally, the more dominant horse represents. Horses are basically followers and look up to strong leaders. That's why Jericho likes to eat WITH Sally, even though it is sometimes not pleasant.

Horsekeeping On A Small AcreageNow, why did the piles work and the tubs do not seem to be working? Well, first of all kudos for not feeding directly on the dirt. As you neighbor suggested, horses will pick up a lot of dirt and sand as they nibble the last tiny scraps.

But picture horse horses eating on two separate piles on the ground. When a horse's head is at ground level, eating, he has the best peripheral vision of any stance. He can see almost completely around himself and would be most aware of any upcoming predators or attack from a pasture mate ! So, feeding on the ground is comfortable and natural for a horse. They feel safe.

Now picture a horse putting their head way down into a deep feed trough to get the last dregs of hay - what can they see? Feed trough walls ! Horses are basically claustrophobic so they don't like their vision or motion restricted. So a horse eating out of a trough might be less comfortable and confident and would not welcome intruders. So, your mare might be making a bigger point to the gelding because she wants to know that when she puts her head into the trough to eat, he is not welcome in her space. She is saying "And I mean it !!" Although he might like to eat with her, she might prefer he eats out of the other trough so she can eat in peace.

Another point I'd like to make is that when horses are establishing a pecking order, they have an initial clash, which can often be quite violent. But then, usually, future aggression is not necessary because the horses then "know their place". But in the case of Sally and Jericho, and many pasture mates like them, Sally never really pulls out all of the stops and gets super harsh with Jericho because after all, she does like to mutual groom with him later on and just hang out with him. So her actions are tough looking but not definitive. In other words, if she had told Jericho, using horse body language of biting and kicking, that he should NEVER approach her or her zone, then Jericho would NEVER approach her or her zone. So they are still fine tuning what's OK and what's not OK and exactly HOW dominant Sally wants to be.

Now, what do you do as the owner of these animals? First of all, move the two troughs farther apart from each other. The simple answer might be that they are too close together when they are eating. If you move them far enough so that Sally gets tired of running back and forth between them to chase Jericho away from the feed, eventually she will pick one and eat her fill. Then she might go over and chase Jericho away, but hopefully, by then, he has his fill also.

If Jericho insists on eating with Sally and is not savvy enough to know that life is sweeter if he eats alone, well you can't do much about that. But most horses, if left alone, will figure out the safest and best way to eat together, provided you have set things up so they are not crowded.

One final thought, you can experiment with the order in which you fill the tubs. For example, if the two horses seem to prefer to eat out of one particular tub together, put the hay in the other tub first (have you checked to be sure the two tubs are far enough apart?) and wait a few minutes, then put some hay in the "preferred" tub.

Horse Handling and Grooming by Cherry HillLet me know what you observe in your equine behavior classroom. As always, take care to be safe. You say the horses have good manners around you, but don't put yourself in harm's way as you test out various feeding strategies.

Thanks for writing Dan,


  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

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