Everyone likes to spoil their horse and most owners regularly feed their beloved equines treats. I'm no exception, but I've been on several yards where treating of horses is banned under yard rules on health and safety grounds. Yard owners and managers reason that horses who are fed treats are more likely to barge in the stable and bite their handler whilst scrounging for titbits. They are not prepared to risk the safety of their grooms or indeed risk being sued by visitors to the yard, especially where there are children wandering around whose fingers might be mistaken for carrots by a greedy horse!
I have personally found treating to be a very useful training tool for several of my horses. The horse who is inclined to be very hard and dry in his mouth under saddle will benefit from being given sugar lumps at appropriate moments during schooling sessions. This technique, combined of course with a correctly fitted, suitable bit and bridle, works very well. The sugar encourages the horse to salivate and relax his jaw and also distracts him from grabbing hold of the bit. After a piece of nice work I would ride a good halt, reach around to pet the horse on his neck and offer him a sugar lump. We would then continue the lesson and when we had finished he would again be rewarded with a piece of sugar. Sugar dissolves pretty much instantaneously in the horse's mouth so no excessive crunching and chewing is required for him to enjoy his reward.
Sugar was also extremely useful when teaching a baby horse to accept his bridle. Rather than having to wrestle his clamped jaws open to put the bit in, I would offer a piece of sugar on the palm of my hand together with the bit. Open sesame! It did not take long for the horse in question to realise that there was a tasty treat on offer every time he was tacked up and pretty quickly he would actually open his mouth and look for the bit in anticipation of the sugar that accompanied it.
Having said all that, it is very important to ensure that your horse is basically polite and mannerly before you begin giving treats. You need to be confident that he will stand quietly when you bring him his feed or haynet and you should be able to stand with him as he eats. You must also be able to remove the feed bucket when he is midway through his feed without being attacked or trampled! Your horse must not be pushy and must respect your space when you are working around him in his stable and when handling him. He must also be polite and patient when you hand-feed him.
Virtually every horse is motivated to some degree by food. Treats are therefore a good way to reward him when he behaves as you want him to. For example, if he comes to you in the field, stands quietly while you put on his head collar and walks calmly alongside you to the gate, you could reward him by praising him vocally, stroking his neck and reinforcing all this with a treat. Another horse I had was unhappy about being mounted I think due to an unpleasant experience he had had whilst being backed as a youngster. To begin with a handler would stand at his head as I mounted from the block. The horse would stand quietly as the handler distracted him with a treat. Over time, we removed the handler and he learned that if he stood still while I mounted, I would lean down and give him a treat once I was safely on board.
There are of course safety aspects to treating. To avoid being nipped or bitten, make sure your horse's muzzle is clear of your body. Keep the treat wrapped in your fingers and extend your arm away from you towards the horse. Only give him the treat when he is patient and polite. If he starts barging and trying to mug you, step away and wait until he settles down and respects your space. It goes without saying that you should only ever offer a treat on the palm of your hand and with your fingers flat.
The healthiest treats are obviously various fruits and vegetables: carrots, swedes, turnips, parsnips and beetroot; apples, pears, nectarines and peaches (stone removed) and grapes. There are also many and varied flavoured and scented treats available in your tack and feed shop some of which contain herbs and smell absolutely delicious.
Have a look through the previous articles on OfHorse too; there are several great blogs from other members giving tips on how to make your own treats and some fab suggestions on more unusual natural rewards too.
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