Does your horse love carrots, mints or cookies? I’m sure that your horse has a favorite! The fact is that almost all horse lovers give their horse treats – because we love them. But when is it a good time and a bad time to treat your horse?
Everyone knows that if your pockets smell like treats, your horse will be sniffing and biting at your pockets. When this behavior gets out of control – “give me a treat or I’ll bite you” – then you know that you have a problem. Giving treats every time you see your horse can cause some unwanted behavior and terribly bad manners. Not everyone who meets your horse may think that’s cute.
Be respectful of other horse owners as well, and don’t give treats unless you are given permission by the owner. The other owner may be trying to deal with unwanted behavior (not just trying to lose a few pounds!), so even though you mean well, it is best to respect the other’s wishes. You would want the same, especially when you are not around to watch. There is a reason why that sign appears on the stall door –”no treats please”.
If we think of the treat more as a reward than a habit, it would encourage us to give a treat at only the appropriate time. Sometimes we mean well, but do more harm than good. If your horse is acting up or even anxious, giving a treat will only create a brief distraction. It actually makes the horse more anxious. There are ways to calm your horse by rubbing the top of the neck in just the right place; this is what I call the calm-down cue. In a horse’s herd, you will see them rubbing each other’s shoulder right in front of the whither. That’s the right place. You are saying to them that all is good. If you use a calming touch and voice, you will actually see the horse licking its lips. The sensation to them is a mental treat. The time to give food is after the horse has acted correctly, not while they are anxious. You may be clipping, shoeing, or teaching something new – when your horse calms in between the fear – that is the time for a reward.
The treat may be given as a reward for calming down, and also for rewarding other good behavior. If you have a horse that will just not come to you in the pasture -and the pasture is very large! -giving a reward for coming to the gate can
be a helpful strategy. It’s better than having to walk through manure and mud and snow and ice to go catch the culprit. Another helpful time to carry a treat with you is when you are training your horse to get into a trailer. Sometimes calm confidence isn’t enough!
Most horses are just as happy receiving a bit of feed, if you are out of apples, or forgot to buy the mints on sale after Christmas! They just want something in their mouth. You also do not need to feed a whole bag of carrots at one time. One treat at a time is just fine. When considering which treat is best, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the horse is polite when taking it from your hand. Mints will not rot a horse’s teeth; horses don’t get cavities. Good to know. Natural is better of course, but their feed is processed anyway, so ginger snaps are not so bad.
A good relationship with your horse starts when you become the leader. A horse looks for reassurance through a touch, not a treat. The attention and touch is more calming to your horse and will encourage better behavior.
You don’t want to be seen only as a source of food. Teach your horse that when you come around, you will rub its ears or shoulder, or scratch under its chin. Believe me, they will be very happy to see you.