I am a firm believer in teaching horses ground manners and especially around feeding for ease of feeding and safety.
Horses in a herd establish a hierarchy and pecking order for who gets to eat and when. Just watch a herd sometime. If the lead mare comes into the group, the other horses will give way to the lead mare. If a lower ranking member doesn’t immediately back away the lead mare or higher horse will pin ears, etc. to reinforce.
When you are with your horse, your horse should look to you as the leader. If you have a horse who pins their ears, kicks out at you or exhibits aggressive or pushy behavior they are telling you that you are below them in the hierarchy of the herd. This is a potentially dangerous situation, especially around feeding.
To begin training ground manners around feeding bring a whip with you to help establish your personal bubble of space. When you step into the stall, pasture or paddock and your horse approaches you with ears pinned you can swing the wip left and right in front of her legs. If your horse stops great, if he/she proceeds forward change the direction of your whip to up and down in front of his/her face to get his/her attention. Please note, the idea isn’t to make contact with your horse, just to establish your space and presence. Although your horse may walk into the whip… but they will likely only do that once.
Once your horse stops a safe distance in front of you, wait. Your horse will eventually lower his/her head and lick and chew, which is a sign of acceptance. WAIT for this shift in attitude and behavior before you place the food on the ground or in the feeder and turn to walk away, letting your horse move forward to eat.
Patients is really important when establishing new boundaries. Give them time to process and hold your ground. In the beginning, your horse may stop and look at you but not lower his/her head or lick and chew. He/she may even pace back and forth or toss his/her head in frustration and they will probably also try to just go around you to get to the feed bucket. Just be patient and persistent. These are learning moments. Your horse is trying to figure out what the right answer is. The lick and chew is acceptance of you as the leader so be patient and wait for it… it will come. When I first started working on this with my mare the first session took like 30 min and a big tantrum before she finally settled and accepted that she had to be calm and patient before she was allowed to get to her food. But it doe get better with each session. Now, my mare calmly waits for me to put her food into her bucket and for me to back away. Every now and then she needs a reminder… But it’s so nice to not be feeding with her head in the bucket before I’ve finished. Good Luck!