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Equine Management

Stress and Behavior



Why is my young horse starting to be aggressive to other horses?


I have a three year old gelding that typically is submissive in the field. In the past, it has been turned out with mares (after weaning) and then a small herd of geldings when it was 18 months. Now my horse is turned out with one older gelding. What started off as a good situation has turned into my horse bullying/biting and showing other signs of aggression toward the other horse. My barn owner suggested putting a muzzle on my horse to prevent it from biting the pasture mate, however my horse is growing very irritated with having to wear the muzzle. Can you speculate on why my horse (who was once timid in the field) has begun 'feeling its oats' so to speak? The gelding is worked on a regular basis and has done wonderfully in training. Aside from putting it out alone during the day/evening and giving it plenty of exercise, I am at a loss.



At three years horses reach "puberty" and start testing their positions in the hierarchy. Before that, they are "babies" in their own minds and the minds of the rest of the herd and, as such, are very submissive. They will also play very roughly with each other, rearing, kicking, striking and biting but inflicting no more than scrapes and bruises. However, now you have a rowdy teenager. The older gelding is apparently not dominant or strong enough to protect itself from damage and the two horses should be separated if the submissive horse is getting seriously injured. Be aware, too, that the dominant gelding will attempt to extend its pushiness onto humans and any aggressive behavior (biting, pushing into people, etc.) should be discouraged quickly with strict discipline. If you don't mind it suffering a few scrapes and bites itself, consider turning the horse out with a dominant (“alpha? mare or gelding for a bit of an attitude adjustment, but this can be risky if the paddocks are small and there is not enough room for the horse to get away (same applies for the current situation).



This answer was written by Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., dACVN, Rutgers University, Equine Science Center.


Is there anything I can do to stop my alpha mare from hurting my other horses?


We have recently adopted a mare that is very dominant and really picks on our other horse, a gelding. They have been together for 5 months now. Will the mare let up and become more complacent with the gelding after time? We would like to keep the mare, but are considering returning her because of her alpha attitude. She was dominant with her previous owners, but she was with 5 other horses and we know there is always a pecking order. Is there anything the owner can do to quiet these alpha tendencies when there are only 2 horses?



If the aggression occurs primarily at feeding time or over a limited resource, the best things to do are to insure that each horse has all the feed and water it needs in two separate locations, and that the feeders, waterers, and gates are not in locations where the gelding can be trapped. Gates should be in the center of the fence line, not in corners and, if feeding hay outside, either use free standing hay feeders or, if in a run in shed, put the wall feeders at opposite ends of the shed. The shed should be at least 24 feet wide so that the mare can't stand at one feeder and keep the gelding at bay by kicking. Unfortunately once an alpha, always an alpha, but the dominant animals usually only assert themselves if their ranking is perceived as being challenged.


Be sure the pinch is firm enough to make them think twice about biting again. This needs to be done every time they go to bite, so instruct everyone working with the foal to practice this method. And remember, it needs to be firm and immediate without hitting. Striking a foal in the face will lead to a head-shy horse.


This answer was written by Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., dACVN, Rutgers University, Equine Science Center.



How do I stop a foal from biting?


How do I stop a foal from biting?





Foals need to be reprimanded of the biting habit as soon as they do it. That is the most important thing. You cannot wait a minute or two after they have bitten to correct them. Therefore, the best method of correction is to catch them in the act of biting and pinch them on the nose. That way they will think the biting caused the pinch, not you.


Be sure the pinch is firm enough to make them think twice about biting again. This needs to be done every time they go to bite, so instruct everyone working with the foal to practice this method. And remember, it needs to be firm and immediate without hitting. Striking a foal in the face will lead to a head-shy horse.


Answer provided by Carey Williams, Ph.D., Equine Extension Specialist, Rutgers Cooperative Extension.



My horse goes crazy when I feed him; how do I get him to stop?

I recently purchased a four year old gelding Quarter Horse. He is a very gentle horse EXCEPT when it’s time for his feeding. As soon as he sees me coming with his horse cubes, he goes ballistic, starts bucking, kicking and running all over the place. As soon as he is finished eating, he is calm and gentle again. I have never experienced this before in a horse, and am trying to find out why he is doing this, and how can I get him to stop, before he injures me or someone else.




What are you feeding the horse and how much? Food aggression is not uncommon, especially if feed is restricted and large amounts of sweet feed (over 3 pounds per feeding of a grain mix with added molasses) are being fed. This horse should have free access to hay or pasture so it is not very hungry at feeding time. If feeding sweet feed, try switching to a pelleted or extruded product. Grain concentrates should be reduced to the bare minimum needed to maintain weight. Increase the amount of hay the horse receives until it starts leaving some. If the horse starts to gain too much weight, reduce the amount of grain concentrate being fed but not the hay. Provide free access to water and a salt block as well.


As for the behavioral component, try to delay giving the horse its meal until it has settled down. It sounds like the horse is fed outside, so this would work best if there are no other horses around that could be injured by its antics. Be patient and persistent, but feeding the horse while it is carrying on will only reinforce the behavior.




Can you explain normal dominance behavior in horses?

My horse bit another horse in the throat today. What is the significance of this behavior? Is this a killer instinct of "going for the throat?" Is my horse a danger to other horses? There have been some new horses introduced lately, as it is a public barn. The horse he bit was not a new horse, but is under him in the pecking order.



This sounds like normal dominance behavior in horses. Dominance and subordination, passive and aggressive behavior, stages of life, size and strength in the wild or in captivity are some components that establish a herd’s “pecking order? Social interactions between horses are affected by the ranks of the individuals involved in the interaction. Without a social hierarchy, or even without socialization, a horse and herd cannot fully function successfully. A social hierarchy is an establishment of avoidance where each individual must know its place relative to others and maintain it in activities such as eating, drinking, sleeping, mating, recreation and day-to-day interaction. The instinctive nature to establish ranking through social interaction is crucial to the mental and physical well-being of the individual horse and to the herd.


Social interactions are governed by the positions of the interacting animals in the pecking order, which is already well-established when a horse is introduced into a group either by birth or placement. The ranks of the horses encountering each other in a social situation determine how either dominant or subordinate responses will be exhibited in the interaction. Aggressive and persistent horses regardless of weight, height, sex or length of residence in a herd achieve higher rank than more passive individuals. Stable relationships become evident by six months; death or removal or divided herds do not cause a change to the dominance order. No step is taken in a certain area or near a certain individual without completely being established by this “pecking order?


Once in a group, a horse’s dominance is asserted passively or aggressively. A horse gains a dominant position over another individual by exhibiting enough superiority so that the other individual yields or withdraws. A new horse placed into a group will typically fight it out physically. Within 1-2 days, its place in the hierarchy is usually well established. This rank then becomes fixed and any attempt of the subordinate individual to not yield on its own is responded to with threatening gestures from the dominant individual, which usually results in the withdrawal of the subordinate. Aggression helps in establishing dominance, but once rank is set very little aggression is shown. When dominance is well-established, the subordinate will either tend to avoid the dominant individual or defer to him when one approaches the other.


Once a newcomer’s rank is established, it will rarely ever change. Dominance can shift, but for only brief periods of time according to special circumstances. For example, a mare with a newborn foal by her side will often become more aggressive out of her natural protective instinct, and as a result may temporarily move up the dominance hierarchy. Other situations such as extreme hunger or the presence of a certain type of desired feed can cause an abrupt surge of aggression and temporarily bump a normally subordinate individual to a dominant status.


The composition of a herd of horses can also change the pecking order. In domesticated herds, it is often observed that males do not necessarily rank above females during maintenance activities. In social groups containing geldings, sometimes a gelding will occupy the alpha position (and even assume the role of harem stallion) with mares ands stallions subordinate to him.


Generally newcomers have an uphill battle and will rank lower on the totem pole. However ranking is not always a straight line upward. Some horses can dominate others while being dominated themselves. Horses generally have a clear unidirectional dominance order, which may not be linear from end to end. In this, “a?might dominate “b;?“b?might dominate “c;?and “c?might dominate “a,?giving an overall triangular dominance order. Regardless of its direction, the social hierarchy is kept in place by subordinates and their behavior. Subordinate individuals keep the order by avoiding conflict above all things. Indeed, the frequency of aggressive encounters would be higher but for the fact that subordinate animals, once they learn and accept their position, will make a strong effort to avoid higher ranking animals altogether so that threats are unnecessary.


Grazing accounts for the majority of a horse’s time and energy and is one of the strongest ways to observe the social hierarchy. The more dominant individuals will always eat first and as much as they want. Subordinate animals that choose to argue will receive a stern reminder of their place and often eat less and last.


Space often can become a problem if it is too limited. Horses forced into small spaces for long periods of time do not have the room they need to move out of range of aggressive behavior from dominant individuals. If personal space is invaded and dominance must be established there are certain violent and non-violent behaviors involved. Non-violent actions include pushing with the head and neck bumping. Violent actions involve kicking, striking or biting.


Immature horses often exhibit snapping (tooth-clapping) when approached or challenged by adults other than their mother. This submissive gesture is especially obvious as foals approach the dominant stallion. Foals normally rank low in dominance, however, while near their mothers they share the mare’s dominance rank. Foals of dominant mothers will not be bothered by subordinate mares as long as the foal is close to its mother. If it moves then it can be threatened.


Age is most evident in the lower part of the hierarchy where the immature members tend to fill the bottom positions and older individuals fill higher positions. Age plays a role in gaining a social position but is not necessarily decisive. Size is also a factor in dominance. However in a large group age does play a key role. When they live in bands a clear social hierarchy becomes established in which the older and larger animals are usually found to be high in the dominance order.


When we attempt to introduce ourselves into a herd’s social hierarchy, or even to one individual, the bond between horse and human must be appropriately developed and maintained. Our status as the dominant member of the pair or herd must be asserted from the very beginning but in a non-violent fashion. This requires that the human supplies all necessary protection against hunger, thirst, fear, discomfort, pain and environmental stress. Only when the animal becomes defiant must a human force the horse to submit. It is important to remember that once a social hierarchy is established, with humans holding a dominant position in that system, the animals can carry on in a manner that is safe for them and us.


For more information on equine behavior see the Rutgers Cooperative Extension fact sheet "The Basics of Equine Behavior."


This answer was prepared with the help of Taymin Pena,  Animal Science Research Student at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University.



Does cribbing make a horse "high?"

A veterinarian that does not specialize in horses has told my daughter that cribbing in horses makes them "high". I have done some research and have only found this to be a theory, not a fact. Is the above statement just a theory, or is it considered a fact in animal science?



Using the term “high?is a bit of a slang term. Cribbing or wind-sucking actually produces endorphins, which give the horse a good feeling, kind of like a “runner’s high?in humans. This feeling is purely natural and produced in the body. Many people confuse wood chewing with cribbing. Wood chewing is simply chewing on stalls, fences, trees, etc. The air sucked into the throat of the horse during cribbing is what causes the “high.? Cribbing in horses can become an addiction because horses feel good after doing it, kind of like obsessive-compulsive disorders in humans. The behavior is usually initiated by boredom or a diet low in fiber. Horses will find a means of entertaining themselves and once they realize that the endorphin release makes them feel good many horses will continue the habit even after the boredom or diet is altered.


Answer provided by Carey Williams, Ph.D., Rutgers Cooperative Extension.



How can I stop my horse from cribbing?

I have a question regarding my 22-year old mare that likes to crib. She currently uses a cribbing collar which doesn't deter this behavior; she continues to bite on the fence and wind suck while wearing it. I have read various articles on the subject and am tempted to remove the collar, but fear she would colic. This brings me to a few questions: Is cribbing a learned behavior? Could I feed her differently to help stop this? Does she have an ulcer that is causing the cribbing?



It is possible that you do not have the collar adjusted tightly enough if your mare can still crib while wearing it; however, for some horses, the collar simply does not work.


Cribbing can be a learned behavior, usually at a young age. One theory is that the act releases endorphins, which makes the horse feel good. It can also be caused by boredom, stress or large intakes of high starch/sugar feeds.


Cribbing can have negative impacts on horses and fences. It can wear down the horse's front teeth and has been associated with ulcers and certain types of colic, but whether cribbing is a cause or effect of the abdominal malaise is uncertain. Removing the cribbing strap, especially since it is not effective in preventing the activity, will not cause colic. One should have a veterinarian check for ulcers if concerned about them. Be aware, if the top front incisors are worn down, the mare will be less effective at grazing because it will not be able to properly bite off grasses. This horse will do fine on hay and processed feeds because the grinding molars will not be affected.


It is also recommended to make some changes to the horse's diet and routine that may help reduce the stress level that causes it to crib in the first place. Try housing the horse outside as much as possible and/or keeping it with a companion horse or other animal. One should also increase the amount of forage offered and feed smaller meals more frequently. Feeding more hay away from the fence or place of cribbing will keep the horse occupied longer and will be better for its digestive health. Reduce grain intake to the minimum necessary to maintain good body weight. If the horse is not in work and otherwise healthy, it is likely that its nutritional needs can be met with good quality forage alone.


To further deter wood chewing and cribbing, there are a few more mechanical options. Try putting a muzzle on the mare. Look for a muzzle that would allow the horse to eat and drink normally, but would prevent it from getting the fence rails in its mouth. There are also a number of products on the market that are supposed to taste unpleasant to horses. Use one of these products to coat the fence boards.



How do I stop my horse from threatening to bite?

We have a two year old Standardbred filly that has developed an unpleasant habit of biting/threatening to bite, when it is approached at her stall door. All other times the filly is really good to work around. What is the best way to break this bad habit, without causing any ill-affects to our filly? She is really not mean at all, enjoys attention and treats, but like a cat, only wants attention on her own terms. We have had to post signs on the stall warning others that she may bite. Please help us.



Feed-related aggression can be tough. First, make sure no one hand feeds the filly treats.  When feeding her, reprimand her; you don't have to be violent, just a firm vocal "no" and and/or slap for pinning her ears, threatening to bite. Do not give her feed until she pricks her ears forward and stops the threat - timing is everything. Basically let her know that an attitude is not going to get her more feed, just the opposite...she sounds smart so it is important to be very consistent with the reprimand/reward.  Another solution to prevent injuries to innocent passerby's is to put a top grate on the door so she can not stick her head out into the aisle.



This answer was written by Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., dACVN, Rutgers University, Equine Science Center.




How do I reduce transport stress?

I have a three year old TB gelding that is quiet, laid back and not easily flustered. However, because he has not been transported very much, he seems to colic each time I move him to a different barn. I plan to transport him a lot this spring and summer so I planned to use a supplement formulated to ease travel stress the day of the move and for a couple of days after to get him through that “transition period? Is there a good product I can use or any other help you could provide to help me prevent this colic?



There are many ways to reduce the stress horses experience by being shipped. The first step in solving any problem is to deduce where in fact the problem is emanating from. A horse being shipped can be stressed for a myriad of reasons: nervousness, dehydration, depletion of certain vitamins and electrolytes... and colic itself has an infinite number of possible causes as well, making this quite the conundrum.


Some answers about stress in horses can be found in the fact sheet called “Are you ‘Stressing Out?Your Horse??/a>


Travel products are all different in some way. Some do not have much information written about them; some appear to be electrolyte supplements and may cost you more than they are worth. The recommendations in the fact sheet mentioned above are a good starting point.


I am concerned that your horse might be colicking because of the change in diet when taking him from one barn to another. Do you provide a slow transition between types of hay and feed? Some horses cannot tolerate a rapid switch of both grain and/or hay so I would always recommend that you keep some of your regular feed with you at all times, especially when changing barns. Horses should have a gradual change of about 2-3 weeks from one feed to another.


This answer was prepared with the help of Rachael Barton, Animal Science Research Student and Carey Williams, Ph.D., Equine Extension Specialist, Rutgers Cooperative Extension.





The material provided on this site is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prevent, or treat any illness. Any recommendations are not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. Mention or display of a trademark, proprietary product, or firm in text or figures does not constitute an endorsement by the Equine Science Center or Rutgers University and does not imply approval to the exclusion of other suitable products or firms.







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