Updated: Apr 26
"My horse is VERY food motivated," is a comment I frequently hear from horse owners. They may mean their horse likes to eat at inconvenient times, gets excited about food when it's presented, won't focus on anything else when it's available, or isn't capable of handling food as a reward because their horse will become pushy or grabby.
ALL Horses are Food Motivated
If your horse doesn't eat, he or she will DIE! So, your horse getting wound up about a meal is totally natural. In fact, it is hard-wired into your horse's brain to eat when they are hungry and food is available to them. Another fact is that horses spend the majority of their lives eating! Yep, they have their face in the feed bucket or in the forage 16-18 hours per day. So, yeah...your horse is no more food motivated than any other horse.
My Horse Really IS More Interested in Food than Other Horses
Okay, your horse may very well become far more excited around food than other horses you know. Being hyper-focused on food may be a sign that more is going on than simple interest. It could also be the result of food insecurity. Too many horses aren't provided with constant access to forage, and some have experienced starvation in their lives, which means they are going to be very worried about getting their next meal. Of course these horses are super focused on getting food every chance they get. They may dive for bites of grass, refuse to leave a meal when asked, or even threaten to bite or kick while they are eating.
The domestic horse's diet is often lacking in vital nutrients. In a wild situation, horses have more opportunity to seek out plants, trees, bushes, and mineral sources that balance their diet. When they live with us, they are totally reliant on us to provide them with everything they need to have a healthy well-functioning body and mind. If something is missing, their brain will tell them to "eat more" as an attempt to fulfill their nutritional needs.
A Pain in the Gut
A horse whose diet is missing the boat or who goes for long stretches of time with an empty stomach, can develop ulcers...quite quickly. Researchers can cause bleeding gastric ulcers in horses in less than 24 hours simply by restricting food intake. Any time your horse is under physical and/or emotional stress, such as when the diet isn't right, can develop ulcers in the stomach and develop hind gut acidosis, which is caused by the disruption of the colonies of intestinal microbes that live in the digestive system. Many horses who experience these conditions may eat a lot more in an effort to soothe their discomfort.
How Do I Fix My Horse's TERRIBLE Manners Around Food?
Now that you know the potential causes, do some investigation to see if there may be something triggering excessive food excitement. Take a look at the herd situation too. Some horses keep other horses from being able to relax enough to eat comfortably. That reduces food intake and increases stress.
Next look at diet. Is your horse getting all the necessary nutrients? It's also important to determine if there's anything in the diet that's inflammatory to your horse. There's lot of products that are sold for horses that will cause inflammation, trigger ulcers, and make your horse feel lousy. Once the source of the problem has been identified and resolved, you may find your horse is much calmer around food.
If you're still getting unwanted behaviors around food, the best thing to do is to deliver your horse's food quickly and quietly in a way that keeps you safe and then leave your horse to dine in peace.