Giving A Horse Treats By Hand

I was asked recently about hand treating horses so I thought I might write a few words about it.

I want to say from the outset that I am not against giving your horse treats. I think it can be an asset to developing a relationship with a horse. But it can also be the cause of a lot of problems. It depends on how it is done.

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In order to understand the role of hand treats in training I think we need to appreciate the importance of food to a horse. Along with safety and social order, food is right up there on the list of most important things in a horse’s life. People talk about horses having short attention spans, but put a bucket of grain under a horse’s nose and he might not lift his head for 30mins until the bucket is empty. The promise of food is a great motivator in shaping a horse’s behaviour. They’ll travel many miles for good grazing. Clicker training relies on the power of a food reward. Most behaviourial scientist will use food reward to study and test behaviour in horses. So when you offer a carrot or apple or grain to a horse as a reward, it has much more influence over his thinking than a simple rub with your hand or a softly spoken word. It’s a powerful tool that can be used for good and evil.

The importance of food to a horse is where the problem lies for many people. I have seen it more times than not that the food treat becomes something that fully occupies a horse’s thoughts. It becomes a drug of addiction if it’s allowed to be. When a horse is offered a treat it becomes his primary focus and the horse’s interest in the human offering the treat becomes nothing more than the interest we might have in a vending machine. He sees us as the source of the treat and searches for anyway he can to get his treat. Instead of being interest in us as leaders or partners, he is only interested in us as a source of food.

I have seen people get bitten, hit in the head, kicked, stood on, run over etc by horses that were searching for a treat. I even know one professional trainer who was severely bitten on the breast because her horse was searching her shirt pocket for food. Sometimes long term hand treating can lead to aggressive behaviour when the horse expects to be given a treat that doesn’t appear.

But in milder cases it creates pushy horses who won’t yield up space and who put their nose in people’s pockets. Added to all that it can create horses that do not listen to people because their minds are consumed with the idea of getting the food.

It does not have to be that way. Horses can learn to accept a hand treat and not turn into monsters. But it is so rare to see that I generally tell people not to give their horses treats by hand. Even well known professional horse people that give treats by hand have trouble keeping it under control. You can watch videos by some really well known trainers and tell that they offer food by hand to their horses during training just by the way their horses are looking at them. It’s really common. Check out videos of Alexander Nevzorov working his horses if you want to see some obvious examples of this.

Despite my best effort to try to discourage people from giving food to the horses by hand, many still do. It seems it is almost as big a compulsion to the owners as it is to the horses. So if you are going to give treats to your horse don’t use your hand. Put the food in a bucket and leave the bucket on the ground some distance from you or throw the food on the ground away from you and let your horse eat off the ground. It’s not a cure all, but it will reduce the risk of him viewing you as a vending machine.

Lastly I’d like to quote what my wife, Michele said to a client who was a repeat offender of giving her horse carrots and then wondering why her horse kept crowding her. Michele said, “I’d like to think I was more important to my horse than a root vegetable.”