A controversial topic among horse owners is whether or not to feed them treats. And if so, how to do it. Should you feed them by hand or throw them in the horses feed pans?
What's the Big Deal?
All pets get treats, right? Dogs, cats, horses, goats—they even have dried up worm treats for chickens! So why wouldn't you feed your horse daily treats? Some people do, while others don't. Everyone has their reasons. I'm going to take a look at the pros and cons. The why's and why not's of people feeding their horses treats.
Horses Are Much Bigger and Stronger Than Your Average Pet
Think about how excited your dog gets when he or she knows that they are about to get a treat. They might jump or run in circles. Their energy level goes up in anticipation. You, the treat feeder, has to be prepared to handle this energy, which can mean a lot of different things. You might have to push your jumping dog off of you or insist that he sits still before feeding him the treat.
The point is, all animals learn to anticipate routine. They learn to anticipate when they might be getting their treats. Naturally, in anticipation of a tasty treat, it is only expected that their energy level might go up out of excitement.
This is easier to manage in smaller animals than it is in horses. Horses that come to know when they are going to get treats can quickly become pushy and rude. Sometimes even nippy, if not managed properly.
Be the Leader
Just like everything else with horses, your horse should be following your lead, anticipating what you want them to do, but waiting respectfully for your leadership.
What does this mean in terms of feeding your horse treats? It means that if you are going to feed your horse by hand, that he should not come into your space to get it.
Our horses should have enough respect of our body language and personal space that even if we have a treat in our hands, they do not push us over to get it.
How to Encourage Good Behavior When Feeding Treats
It's easy to encourage good behavior when feeding treats because you can insist on it. In other words, if they don't wait respectfully, they don't get it.
If your horse is tied up, you will not give him the treat if he is pawing or moving around anxiously.
If you are holding your horse on a leadline, you will have established your space, in other words, your personal "bubble" around yourself. That is your space, for safety. The horse will only come into that space when you allow it, ten easily step back out of it when you tell him to.
Practice Keeping Your Personal Bubble
Practice keeping your personal bubble around yourself and cueing your horse to come in and out of it. You will invite him to come into your space maybe with just a little tug on a leadline, or just holding out your hand. If your horse isn't used to you taking charge and asserting space around yourself, he may be eager to get close to you again.
To move your horse out of your space, you can either tug backward on his leadline or take a whip or crop and tap his chest until he backs up. The key to this is that as you are asking him to move out of your space that you keep yourself still. You don't move your feet. If you move your feet towards your horse while trying to move them out of your space, you are giving up your personal bubble. In order to get him to respect you and move away, you need to stand your ground. Just patiently tap him in the chest with the whip, or tug his lead, not moving your feet from your spot. That way the horse realizes that you are establishing your personal space. He has to wait for your cue to move in and out of it.
Does Your Horse Respect Your Space?
If you can get your horse to respect your space as mentioned above, hand-feeding him a treat is a safe thing to do. You allow him to come forward to you to get the treat or you go to him with it.
You should feed treats very deliberately as to make sure that your horse doesn't see you as a human treat dispenser. We don't want them to think that they can just plow us over and get more food.
Unfortunately, I have seen many new horse owners, eager for their horse to "like them", go overboard with feeding treats. This turns a horse with good ground manners into a pushy treat fiend. Hopefully, by reading this article, you won't have to learn this lesson the hard way!
You Don't Want to Have to Have Treats in Order to Get Your Horse to Do Something
You don't want your ability to do something with your horse to depend on whether or not you have a pocket full of treats. Your horse should not expect or demand treats. They should take them politely when you offer them. They should be able to be caught, tacked, feet picked and all that good stuff because they are well mannered and respectful, not because they want food.
Putting Treats in the Horses Feed Pan
If you want to be able to feed your horse treats, but have not yet quite established the respect that you feel is necessary to feed a treat safely by hand, putting it in their feed pan is a good option.
That way, they will get the treat when they eat their feed and don't necessarily associate getting treats directly with you. Feeding your horses treats is fine, we just don't want them to lose respect and just think of you as the human treat dispenser.
It Depends on the Horses Personality Too
I have horses in my barn that gently take treats from little kids after lessons day-after-day and never become pushy or rude about it.
My big retired gelding I never feed by hand, because if I do, he immediately becomes a 17-hand treat monster, pounding on the stall for more treats. One is never enough for him! It's obnoxious behavior so the only way he ever gets fed treats is by having them dropped in his feed pan.
I have seen horses with good manners get spoiled and rude by being fed treats by hand. I have had to then see their owners learn the hard way how to re-establish respect with their horse on the ground.
You being safe on the ground is much more important than your horse getting a carrot or an apple after you ride him. Take it from someone who is healing from a TBI. Respect from your horses on the ground is the foundation of your safety around them.
As long as you are thinking about how and when you are feeding your horse treats, and you insist he stay mannerly about it, you will be good to go! You get to feed your baby treats, and he or she gets to enjoy them.
If they are not mannerly enough to allow that to happen, then you should do the groundwork to teach them your personal space. Until you master it, just feed them their treats in their feed pan.
To Treat or Not to Treat
We all have our own opinions about whether or not feeding our horses treats is a good idea. Personally, I think it is more about how you do it then whether you do it. As long as you're encouraging respectful behavior on the ground from your horse, there is no reason not to do it.
Trust me, you don't want to become a human treat dispenser. Human treat dispensers get hurt!!
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