Friday, July 22, 2011

A Little More History

As a follow up to yesterday's post and it's comments, I thought I would delve into the history of Milo to try and sort this mess out.

Within the first week or so of bringing Milo home to J's place, there was an incident between he and J. J went into the stall during feeding time for whatever reason, and Milo swung around and tried to kick him. Although older, J was fast and got out of the stall quickly and somewhat panicked. He later told me what happened, but neither one of us thought much thinking this new horse just was very uncomfortable with either of us. I was not told by the former owner about any sort of food aggression, so we both just tried to monitor it. While Milo might pin his ears for the next few weeks at dinner time, no one entered his stall and therefore nothing came of it.

Then at the end of August I took Milo to fair. The horses are kept in a small box stall during fair week, so needless to say it is very close proximity. One evening I entered the stall with the hay bag in hand, and Milo pinned his ears at me. Not thinking much, I just asked him to get away from me while I brought the hay bag to the back of the stall to tie. My motion to keep him away from the food seemed to upset him, and he swung his rear around and kicked out - narrowly avoiding me and instead kicking the water bucket. Being as we were at fair and there were people around, I couldnt take him outside for a groundwork session as I had wanted to. I did, however, halter him and get after him as I could about what happened and kept he food away from him that night, although I wasnt sure that was the best solution. I feared it would only aggravate him more or lead to confusion as they dont always associate event = no food. I waited until after fair to try and address it again.

After fair, Milo was moved from J's to a small boarding facility. The owner fed the six horses kept there and they were housed in large stalls with large paddocks attached. Before moving him, I let her know there had been a few episodes due to food aggression. I was working on it, but I wanted her informed. She still allowed us to come. So I set to work.

I worked with him and a flake of hay repeatedly for a few weeks. I would enter the stall with the flake of hay, and a longe whip behind the stall door if I needed it. I didnt want him to see the longe whip immediately and respond differently because of it - I wanted to get to the root of the problem. So as I would enter the stall with hay, if he so much as pinned an ear at me he got a verbal warning, a sharper body language, or as needed, I would remove the hay back into the stall aisle-way and send him outside of the stall using the longe whip. Eventually, we got it figured out that when hay entered the stall and someone was in there, he had to stay out of the stall in his paddock and he could not enter until someone was completely out and the door was closed, only then could he eat his food. Only a few repetitions with this technique, and the BO was able to feed him the same way. It make cleaning easier (I was one of the three cleaners) because it also developed into him exiting the stall if a wheelbarrow came in. Things were working well.

We were incident free for probably six months or so (I didnt stay at that facility for very long) and I had now owned Milo for just under a year. I moved him to a new facility where he had a stall and paddock, and group turnout in a pasture daily. I again informed the owner that he had some history of food aggression, but he wasnt concerned because all the food was dumped down into the stall from the loft above, so no one entered the stall with food. The cleaners (again, I was one of them) could enter the stall and the same routine of wheelbarrow entering stall made Milo exit the stall. I figured things were still going well. Until, Boyfriend entered the stall.

I had put Milo away for dinner after a ride, and went to put my tack away in the tack room. I hadnt closed the stall door entirely, knowing I needed to go in there one last time for something. But while I was absent, Boyfriend went into the stall because he wanted to give Milo a carrot. Milo pinned his ears at him, and Boyfriend tried to get him to come away from his food. Milo again, swung his rear around and kicked out at Boyfriend, who, surprised and appalled, exited quickly and immediately told me what happened. I went back to our previous work and ensured that my horse could respect my space when in a close proximity to him and food, and this time, also expected a pleasant demeanor.

That year I took him to fair again and had no incident. Maybe things were looking up.

When Milo was five I moved him to where he is now, but initially he was kept in the main barn with a paddock. Although no one had to enter his stall to feed, they used windows to dump the feed into from the aisle-way, I started to notice that he began pinning his ears again for food. I asked the feeders to not allow him to do so or to give him a swat in the nose and wait until he was more pleasant, but none adhered to it. I cant entirely blame them though as they have around forty horses to feed - they dont want to take their time to sit and train and horse.

But he still was doing well for the feeders so I thought maybe it was just a bad face, nothing more. Until one night after a ride, I led him into his stall for food. I was slacking off now and not making him stay in the paddock before I left the stall, instead, I asked for his nose to come around to me and wait for the verbal "ok". I did this because I always hated taking a halter off a horse and their nose barely getting out of the halter before trying to dive away to the food. This also kept his head by me and his rear away. One night, he did not meet his nose to me and instead he tried to dive for his food. I began to shoo him away from it and out to the paddock, and he stood stock still, butt pointed my direction. He didnt try and kick, but he was adament that he didnt want to move anywhere and he sure made some nasty faces. I quickly was able to grab the longe whip I still housed outside the stall, and sent him out, waiting for a pleasant demeanor and my exit from the stall before him getting food. I again did this ritual for a while before I felt we were on solid terms.

Then the opportunity came for Milo to go down to a pasture. Initially, he was with one of the two year old babies, and there was no accident aside from Milo picking on the baby. Eventually, Champ was moved, and Marie was brought in for the summer camp. Marie and Milo got along well, but I noticed that Milo started getting attached to her and would call when she left. I also had noticed in times prior, that Milo got very attached to certain mares (one during drill team and the rodeo, very un-fun rodeo, another to Heather's Missy when we hauled to practices together and cow sortings). Eventually, I heard that Milo was getting pushy and bossy towards people not only taking Marie away, but also entering the pasture. These were barn children helping with the summer camp, he certainly could not be throwing his weight around for kids. I advised they entered the pasture with a longe whip, and things seemed to work out after that.

When Milo was moved into the pasture with Jake, I, just for the sake of it, wanted to address the food issue again and make sure that he still understood that in the pasture he was to stay away from me near food and stay pleasant. We seemed to establish that, and I told Jake's owners how I keep him away if they have a problem with him. It didnt take long before I was being told that he was being pushy, so they would bring a longe whip in. While they are too soft-hearted to actually keep Milo away by use of the whip or body language, things escalated. From pushy, Milo started to get pushy and mean to them, even rearing up one time. Another time, I was told Jake's owner just tried to adjust Milo's blanket leaning to the side, and he turned around and threw his weight around at her, ears pinned and upset.

Finally, and as I addressed here a few weeks ago, Jake's owner decided that to keep Milo away from her as she was in with Jake, she would give him alfalfa pellets, and that is where I think things have really gone downhill. Rewarding bad behavior with food, to a food driven and aggressive horse? Why oh, why? But you cant turn the clock back.

Thinking back through the events now, it seems I have really only addressed the space issue - to keep Milo out of one's space. But I only touched on the aggressive part, only requiring Milo to appear pleasant (at least, no pinned ears). While I have groomed him and such with food, I can also tie him directly above his hay pile and do whatever I please - grooming, tacking, etc and he doesnt mind and listens well to me.

So what of it now? Well, I can work with him in the pasture again and see what I find from him, but I'm assuming not much. Also, Milo and I have been working together for years and as Clara puts it, "he's a momma's boy who has learned to listen to me but lacks respect for anyone else". I still think it's impossible to expect every other person to have a one-on-one session with him, especially since feeders dont need to enter the pasture area.

I'm thinking that Milo has turned from a food aggression in the beginning to food and territorial aggression which could be from becoming attached to pasture mates, and possibly the very means of being on a pasture, maybe rekindling some sort of feral stallion like behavior for owning territory?

I'm curious to see how the show goes this weekend, and maybe I can get Sarah to help address this. Maybe if I can get her to feed him and see how he reacts, I can see how Sarah responds, and Milo likewise. It's at least an idea.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it's a learned behavior from before you got him. He's a horse who needs clear rules and boundaries that are consistently enforced. It's hard when you board to get that level of consistency - all you can do is try, but you would think if people were at physical risk that they could learn to do things the correct way . . .

One exercise that might help - but again you've got to get him to generalize to other people which can be hard with a behavior like this - is to frequently take him away from food or move him away from food. You may have to train barn personnel so they don't starting "training" him back into the bad behaviors.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

One question - does the behavior happen more often with grain and less often with hay only? (This would be indicative of ulcers.) Or is it more a space issue - particularly though not only in an enclosed area? Or is it a fear motivated behavior related to worrying about access to food? - if he wasn't fed regularly or enough in a prior life or had to fight other horses for access to food.

Deanna said...

From all that you shared and Kate's comments, I don't have anything to add - just wanted to say that
I'm so glad that Milo is with you. This behavior would scare of a lot of people away from owning him (also happens with dogs and food aggression) and then Milo would just be going from home to home until who knows what would happen to him.
He is blessed to have you!!
Keep us posted!

Fetlock said...

It sounds like you've done a ton of work with him on this--but you're right, not everyone else is going to have that kind of time.

I remember watching one of Carolyn Resnick's videos and how she said she spends quite a bit of time sending horses away from food. She'll set up several small piles of hay in the arena and spend time driving her horse from one to the other--matter-of factly, just like an alpha horse would do it. That would be a super easy exercise to set up with your barn folks. I think it would be more beneficial to do it out in the open rather than where he gets fed--there is something about getting a horse's feet to move around a lot that helps reinforce things for them.

You're right, one of the worst things about food aggression is that you have to take the time while feeding to "correct" it, and chore time is often the very time it's hardest to take time. I don't feed mine if they're even making faces at each other--everyone has to stand politely and have ears up. Sometimes I've stood out in the wind and snow trying not to swear under my breath until they can all get under control!

in2paints said...

I'm so glad Clara is okay! That must have been terrifying for her.

A friend of mine had a very food aggressive horse and he was nasty! My friend used to ask me to feed for him sometimes and I hated it. He only fed him in the stall and you'd have to set up all the food before bringing him in from outside because once you turned him loose in his stall to eat, it was time to run the heck out of there or you were going to get it. And you didn't go back in the stall for any reason until he was finished. That horse was scary!

I used to beg him to let me have my way with that horse, but he refused to work on the issue at all. It was pointless for me to work with him when my friend was away, because then the horse would only behave while I was there and went back to being a jerk when I wasn't around.

Unfortunately for you, I think the same is true where Milo is concerned. You've done a lot of work with him already and kudos to you for trying to keep it under control, but I'm afraid he'll continue to act this way with new people, or with people who don't address it when it happens. You could work with him all day long, but when you're not there, anything can happen.

Unless you can get backup from the other people at the barn, I'm not sure you'll be able to completely address the issue. Are they willing to help out with this?