Food is a Trust Issue


The devastating Texas drought of 2010-2011 caused hardships for all living things. There wasn’t any pasture for the horses, wells and ponds went dry, and the price of hay was unbelievable. However, there was a silver lining in this situation for my relationship with Rocky. I was forced to face my fears that something would cause Rocky to return to his old habits of aggressive dominance toward humans. Even though we have passed Parelli Level 3 and have worked hard for seven years to achieve what for me is an unbelievable horse – human partnership, I still harbor fears that something will happen that causes Rocky to revert back to his old habits of aggressively trying to dominate the humans around him. I was afraid to put Rocky on a diet because of his past food aggression issues.

For a long time, I tried not to think about putting Rocky on a diet. I avoided facing this reality because I was afraid that being on a diet would cause Rocky to return to his acts of aggression toward me and others around his food. It was a trust issue for me. Rocky trusted me as a leader who would lead him to the best grazing areas; but, would he still trust and respect me if he was hungry and there wasn’t any grass for grazing?

I remember how frightening it once was to be in a paddock with Rocky. Those early days are definitely one source of nightmares and trust issues in our relationship. When I first bought him, Rocky did not like people to be near him in his stall or while he ate. One day (back in 2005) I was naively standing near Rocky while he was eating and he bit me in the stomach. I had a huge swollen hard painful hematoma bigger than my fist for months. I was shocked that he would bite without any apparent provocation. I was afraid he would bite someone else (especially my young daughter) in the same manner. The other horse owners at the stable told me to use “the 30 second rule” to respond quickly and show him who was boss. For a dominant left brained introvert like Rocky, this was the worst possible action that I could take. His aggression continued to escalate until I developed my horsemanship skills to the level where I earned his respect. We have had a long journey to build a partnership as you can see in my other blogs like I Walk the Line: Emotions, Rewards & Reassurance.

That first bite was seven years ago when Rocky was boarded at a stable. I devoted a lot of time working on his aggression toward people around his food. I would arrive at the stable before feeding time and stake out a small empty paddock. I would put Rocky in the paddock with a food tub by the fence. Rocky was learning that humans were good providers of food just like the alpha in the horse herd knows where to find food and water. I would put his sweet feed in the tub and stand or sit on the other side of the fence and ignore him and the food. This way, Rocky could not bite me but he had to be close to me if he wanted to eat. Hunger usually won out but some days he spent a lot of time studying the situation or wildly bucking around the paddock before eating. Each day, I moved a little closer while he ate and got to the point where I could stand in the paddock beside him while he ate. It took several weeks, but he was finally at the point where he showed no intentions of biting me around his food. Safety was a concern and I was always wary and kept a close watch – I had to learn to watch Rocky closely and properly respond if he became aggressive. Rocky enjoyed being groomed and I started grooming him while he ate. He really started enjoying the attention.

I learned to use Rocky’s natural focus on food to build our relationship. I began using grazing as a motivation for our activities together. Check out my blog Awareness in Your Horse’s World to see how grazing became a big part of building our horse human partnership. Rocky grazed in the pasture during the day while I was at work and spent the night in an outdoor paddock. Unfortunately, Rocky ate a lot more than he should while grazing all day. Rocky gained too much weight when the pasture grass was plentiful and he really needed to go on a diet.

With the drought, there was absolutely nothing for Rocky to eat but the hay and grain I provided so he couldn’t gain extra weight from grazing. Rocky has been on his diet for over 18 months now. I make sure Rocky doesn’t eat all of his food at one time and then spend the rest of the day hungry and getting grumpy. He gets food several times during the day and night so that his food intake mimics the natural grazing habits of wild horses. I divide the hay into small portions and spread it around the pasture or his paddock so he has to travel as he grazes on the hay. When there is grass in the pasture, I limit his grazing time. Rocky is a much healthier horse now.

How has Rocky behaved while on his diet? He has remained an attentive and playful partner. Our relationship and trust has grown because of the experience. We passed Parelli Level 3 last summer while Rocky was on his diet. We even did the freestyle audition riding bareback and bridleless.

Rocky loves carrots and I put small carrot pieces in my pocket for rewards while we are playing games and riding. When we finish a task and he feels it was worthy of a reward, he gently points his nose toward my pocket and wiggles his upper lip. My Did You Notice blog described the subtle ways Rocky once invaded my space. He doesn’t invade my space to get his carrot; he is just politely asking if it is time for a reward. When we are riding, there are several tasks (like jumping) that usually get a reward. After we complete a jump, Rocky slowly turns his head to look at me and ask if it is time for a reward. I still use other rewards like scratching and swatting his flies. Rocky is just as happy with a good scratch reward as he is with the carrots. The fears of Rocky returning to his old aggressive habits were totally unfounded and not worth the sleep that I lost worrying about it. I am so very grateful to the Parelli natural horsemanship mentors who helped me develop the skills needed to achieve such a great horse-human relationship.

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