While I am not against feeding treats, I do think it is more appropriate and safer for treats to be put in a bucket rather than be given by hand. I know many owners get enjoyment from hand feeding their horses so let me explain my reasons for discouraging this activity.
Horses are very condition response animals and they soon catch on that when you come to the barn you have something good for them. I know that many of you like your horse to welcome you with a nicker when you come into barn. However, it is not your presence as much as the anticipation of a treat that elicits the warm welcome. I have proved this many times over.
There is nothing wrong with your horse recognizing and welcoming you when you come into the barn. The problem is that the horse starts looking for and expecting a treat. Horses also figure out where you keep the treats. Sometimes treats are kept in a shirt or jacket pocket and horses are quick to discover where the treat is. I have seen too may incidents where a horse has injured the owner, not from meanness, but from reaching for a treat. A friend of mine in San Diego lost part of a breast because her horse was reaching for the treat she always kept in her shirt pocket. I have had more than one client get bitten on the hands because a horse is reaching for a treat. I had a client at the barn that I repeatedly asked not to hand feed her horse. She continued to feed the horse by hand and within a short time the horse nipped off the end of her finger. She went to the emergency room, I found the fingertip, and the doctor was able to reattach it. The event was traumatic for everyone involved and it was certainly not the fault of the horse.
There is nothing wrong with giving your horse a treat. Many horse treats that are made with fresh, natural products have nutritional value and act as a supplement. Carrots and apples are always good treats and are also good for horses. It is not the giving of a treat than can cause a problem. It is the method. Horses by nature have a tendency to get pushy. I have an entire barn full of horse moms who love their horses and want to spoil them but horses can take advantage and that can be dangerous.
Sometimes I have a hard time convincing my clients that to be safe, a horse must have good ground manners. Several years ago I sold a nice quiet horse with good ground manners. The owner decided the horse was too much for her and brought the horse back for help. When they came into the barn, I saw that the horse was leading and pulling her along. The horse had good foundation training and when I took the lead rope and asked the horse to back up, he obeyed. We walked off with 18 to 20 inches of slack in the lead rope and he was not pulling on me. It is a matter of respect and the behavior we as owners permit. We must have control on the ground. When we set the standard of what is acceptable behavior from our horses, we get the relationship with the horse that we really want. When a horse is pushy or pulling on you, you can get hurt. In the spring when new grass is coming up, horses will pull away from us to get a mouthful. Grass is a big treat and if you allow the horse to get to the grass any time you are walking by a patch, he will always pull on you when it is near. That is not acceptable behavior. Your horse should always walk calmly beside you, neither pulling ahead nor dragging behind. He should stop the moment you stop and if he does not, you should back him up and stop him.
In my experience during the last twenty five years of doing horse expos, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people get hurt on the ground. Being stepped on or bitten by a horse looking for a treat is not pleasant. A friend of mine, who is also a trainer, was working with a horse that was really spoiled and he was bitten in the arm. The horse was frustrated because it was not getting the treat it was accustomed to. My friend lost part of the muscle in his upper arm. Actually, more people are injured on the ground from incidents like this than from falls.
Many horses are actually trained using treats; this is called Clicker Training. Clicker Trainers will also tell you that there must be respect for the trainer’s personal space. Learning tricks and to trailer load can be done that way however, the question is, can we control a horse with treats? The answer is no. A horse that is frightened or injured and needs to be loaded, is not going to respond to food. There is a need to maintain the integrity of the horse’s respect for us. In my experience, generally, many women are unable or are unwilling to do this. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way but I do see that when horses become pushy, many ladies are not willing to match that aggression with the appropriate amount of pressure to drive the horse away.
To recap, I understand that women are naturally nurturing and want to give their horses treats. I am not against this but please, do it safely and put the treat in a bucket or feed bin. The horse is still going to welcome you with a nicker. And, be aware that if your horse has gotten pushy, you could be in danger. Take the time to correct the behavior and have a better and more enjoyable relationship with your horse.