Treat Your Horse Well

Published in the June/July 2015 issue of The Aiken Horse.

Treat your Horse Well

By Kendra DeKay

 Gather ten horse professionals in one room, and you will have ten different opinions about hand-feeding treats to your horse! Listen to all of them… you will probably learn something, because there are very good reasons both to feed treats and to never feed treats. Consider the pros and cons, consider your situation, consult the horse professionals in your life, and choose wisely!

Horses and Food

Horses differ from dogs and humans in that food sharing is not a part of horse culture, in a biologically natural setting. Food is always available to grazers, unlike prey animals who make a kill and then bring it back to be shared amongst the pack. So while grazing together is a social bonding activity with horses, generally in the wild food is not a scarce resource to be squabbled over. In a domestic setting that changes. When horses live in small groups or pairs and are fed meals of hay and grain, suddenly there is competition for those finite resources. Feeding time can be an excellent time to observe your horses and shape good manners. The herd hierarchy should be respected at meal times with the most dominant horse fed first. Meals in a shared space should be spread at least 20 feet apart with an extra feed station per horse to minimize fighting.

Because the competition for resources will bring out dominant behavior, at feeding time it is very important to be aware of how your horse is behaving towards you. Whether his status within the herd is high or low, a horse may show dominant behavior towards humans at feeding time by crowding, pinning his ears, shaking his head, pawing, “guarding” his feed bucket or hay pile, and threatening to kick, bite, or charge. Take these warnings seriously, as in horse culture a horse will bluff first, and if his bluff is not called, over time he may follow through on his threat.

The good news is that by gaining respect and submission from your horse at feeding times, not only will you and anyone else around your horse while he’s eating be safer, but you can improve your overall relationship with your horse in ways that have nothing to do with food. Ask your horse to back up and stand still patiently with a nice look on his face (ears up, no head tossing or pawing). In the beginning, if your horse’s behavior is extreme or you don’t feel safe to enter his stall/paddock, you can either put a halter and lead rope on him or use a stick and string or a whip (anything that can extend your reach four to six feet or so) and stand outside his enclosure. Simply wait until your horse can stand back and wait for 10 seconds or more before you feed him. Think of it like asking your dog to sit and stay and wait until given the OK to go to his food bowl. It may take a few minutes the first several times until it becomes routine, but if you reinforce “good table manners” every time, pretty soon it will be quick and easy.

Why give treats at all?

It is unnecessary to ever hand feed or treat your horse in order to bond with him or train him. BUT… used wisely, treats can be very helpful for improving motivation, enthusiasm, and forming a positive association with people and places. Treats are not a replacement for good training. They are ineffective in modifying behavior when used to bribe or trick the horse into being caught or loaded into a horse trailer (it may work once or twice, but the clever horse will soon get smarter with his evasive moves!) But for many horses, it can be a great enhancement to solid training practices. And for many people, it simply feels good to treat your horse. Even if horse don’t see receiving treats as a bonding activity, people do, and we are half of the horse-human relationship!

If you prefer never to hand feed, there are alternatives that can be used for bonding with your horse or as a reward during training to condition desired behavior:

  • Do nothing… don’t underestimate the value of just hanging out with your horse, asking nothing of him
  • Find his itchy spots and give him a good scratch
  • Take him to a lush patch of grass and let him graze while you stand guard
  • Go on an exploring walk and let him lead the way and do what he wants (using your veto power to redirect him from potentially unsafe situations)

Giving Treats Safely

  • If a horse already has a pushy attitude about food in general, take the time to shape up his table manners at meal times before you introduce hand feeding. If you hand feed now, but are realizing that your horse could use a better relationship with you and his food, take a break from hand feeding while you get your respect system back in balance.
  • Don’t allow your horse to “shake you down” for treats… nudging your pockets can turn into nipping or pushing quite quickly. Even if this doesn’t bother you, think of other people your horse might interact with, and their safety. Think of whether your horse’s behavior would be safe around a young child. If not, shape it up.
  • Extend your arm and allow your horse to take the treat from your hand at a distance from your body. Backing him up a step or asking him to turn his head away before giving the treat can reinforce the pattern of patience and respect as a prerequisite for receiving the treat.
  • Most of us know to offer the treat on a flat hand to avoid feeding your horse your fingers. If your horse is overly enthusiastic about taking the treat (ie, swallows your whole hand), you can try making a fist around the treat and bumping his muzzle gently when he dives in for the treat. Open your hand when he is settled and ready to take it gently.
  • You can also avoid hand feeding by giving the treat in a bucket or dropping it on the ground

Food For Thought

Whether you choose to treat or not to treat, understand when and how treats can be useful, and how to give them properly. Know how to train, motivate, and bond with a horse without the use of treats. Most importantly, understand that how your horse relates to you around food—meals and/or treats—is a reflection of his respect for you (and people in general). Teaching and maintaining good table manners is something all excellent horsemen and women do.

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