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Improving Horse Behavior at Feeding TimeBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 25, 2015

Researchers recently reported* that, in certain situations, domesticated horses compete rather aggressively for environmental resources, with food being one of the most valuable resources. Horses solve such disputes in unpredictable ways—such as kicking, pinning ears, rushing, and biting. For most horsemen, this is not news. But those agonistic interactions sometimes result in stress, lower growth, and even lower survival and each of these, if severe enough, may constitute a welfare issue for horses.

“According to the study, the cohesion and social stability of a group of horses is threatened when there is limited space for feeding, thereby forcing some horses to enter another horse’s ‘flight zone,’ which is the space around a horse that should not be invaded,” explained Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., director of nutrition at Kentucky Equine Research (Australasia).   

The researchers suggested five guidelines to help decrease agonistic behavior among horses at feeding times:  

  • Keep a herd as closed as possible. Horses in a socially stable situation show fewer antagonistic behaviors than those in herds with population flux.
  • Choose feed troughs that are large enough so food can be spread out in a thin layer. This allows multiple horses to access food without consuming the feed at an excessively rapid rate.
  • Set up feed troughs for success. Having multiple troughs that are positioned at least 10 meters from each other and troughs positioned at a height of 0.71 meters, which is higher than traditional feed troughs, reduces the frequency of kicking. In larger groups, place feed bins in a circle rather than a line; if a horse gets pushed off its bin, it can easily move to another one.
  • Maximize the area in which horses are fed to limit other horses from intruding into another’s “flight zone.”
  • Ensure horses lowest on the pecking order have access to their own feed trough—this may necessitate additional feed bins—and routinely monitor their body condition to maximize health and welfare.

*Luz, M.P.F., C.M. Maia, J.C.F. Pantoja, et al. Feeding time and agonistic behavior in horses: influence of distance, proportion, and height of troughs. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. In press.