EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Mean Young Horse

Is a young gelding challenging authority or could there be another reason for his aggressive behavior? Dr. Joyce Harman offers advice in EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.
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Is a young gelding challenging authority or could there be another reason for his aggressive behavior? Dr. Joyce Harman offers advice in EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.

Question:I have a 2-year-old gelding whose disposition turned sour recently. My son was feeding him grain in an over-the-fence feeder and all of a sudden the horse tried to pin him up beside the fence with his rear. Then he ran toward him and tried to stomp him with his front hooves. About a week later I was feeding hay (with no grain) and had scattered the sections in different piles. My other three horses were eating other piles of hay. I went to check the water level in the tub and then walked back to pet the gelding while he was eating. I placed my hand on his neck and began to rub him. He whirled around and tried to run over me. I can't understand why he has changed his attitude. We feed a 2-pound scoop of grain to each horse "about" every day. Some days we skip the grain and feed hay only. I don't think it's the grain (Show & Pleasure Textured Horse Feed, which is 11 percent protein, 12 percent crude fiber, 6 percent crude fat). He has only done this twice, but why the attitude change? What should I do to correct it?

Answer: There are several factors to consider in a case like this. One is that many young horses, like human kids, go through phases when they want to challenge authority. If this is the case, the gelding needs some firm discipline and may need to go to a professional trainer for a month or two to learn some good manners. You do not say how long you have had him or how long he has been gelded. Some geldings take a bit of time to get over the stallion-like behavior and a 2-year-old who was recently gelded still may have some stallion behaviors.

Several other behavioral issues can be considered also. A young horse needs lots of activity and if the other older horses do not play much with him, he may be bored and have too much energy to spare. If he does not have much space to run and play that can contribute to boredom as well. His personality can contribute. Some horses react to a lack of discipline by getting aggressive, just because they find it fun. This sort of horse usually has shown some type of assertiveness along the way, but may not have been aggressive. Or if he is at the bottom of the pecking order he may find that the humans are the only creatures below him, so being 2 years old, he tries out his assertiveness on people.

When sorting out any behavioral issue, it is important to rule out medical problems. When a horse is castrated, occasionally a tiny piece of testicle is left behind, which continues to produce testoterone. The colt then behaves like a stallion, and at 2 years old it is not uncommon for a stallion to begin aggressive behavior. A simple blood sample can check the testosterone level and give you an answer. If testoterone is present above a certain level, there will be some testicle tissue left behind. Below that level you have a complete gelding and the problem lies elsewhere.

Depending on your horse's breed and body type, the amount of grain he is getting may be too much. Many of our horses are easy keepers, and even when growing they do not require much grain. The grain contains molasses, and though it says that is has reduced levels of carbohydrates, sugar is a significant problem for many horses. It can make them hyperactive, as can just too much grain, and he may need an outlet for that energy. If he is too fat to easily find his ribs, he is definitely getting too much grain for his age and body type. He can eat less grain, and you can supplement his minerals with a free choice powdered mineral and a vitamin supplement rather than relying on a small amount of grain to supply his needs.

He also may have developed ulcers, and excessive grain feeding can contribute to stomach discomfort and bad behavior. Any other type of stress, including not enough exercise, can contribute to ulcers. Other sources of pain can contribute to behavior problems (see Ask the Vet: Grumpy Horse and Ask the Vet: Aggressive Behavior). Have your veterinarian give him a good physical and perhaps draw some blood for testing. You also may want to have a well-trained chiropractor or acupuncturist check him over for any other signs of pain (see Alternative Healthcare Organization Links).

I have personally seen some violent behavior issues after vaccinations, especially the rabies vaccine. This can occur anywhere from a few days to a month after the shot and is not generally recognized as a problem by the veterinary community. To read more about rethinking the vaccine issue and just doing what is needed, see the article Annual Vaccinations on my website. Many veterinarians, especially with small animals, are doing less vaccination and find the animals behave better and are healthier. If the timing is right for a potential vaccine reaction, look at the Alternative Healthcare Organization Links list for a veterinarian who practices homeopathy, since this modality works well for those reactions.

Before you have the reasons for the behavior figured out and corrected, be careful. Do not let children in the paddock when he is loose and keep yourself safe. Do not handle him without a halter and be sure you have room to move away safely if he comes after you. You may even want to leave a cheap, breakaway halter on him with a short piece of rope (12 to 15 inches is safe) so you can catch him quickly.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.

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