“Not by hand – put it in their bucket.”
“Only after rides.”
“Kids shouldn’t feed treats – they overdo it.”
“Seriously? Why wouldn’t you?”
These were the various answers I received while polling horse people about whether or not feeding horses treats is “right.” It often elicited an intense reaction, no matter what stance they took on it.
For the last couple years, I’ve been lucky enough to forgo owning a horse and instead get free leases and working student positions. I experimented – did the horses “love” me any less if I didn’t feed them treats, like their owners did? Apparently not (although I did get some baleful looks from the cross ties).
I know horses who maintain the gentlest disposition, despite getting fed dozens of treats a day. I have also been put into physically dangerous situations by spoiled rotten horses, including being double barrelled in the stomach and some nasty bites! Treats can be used as valuable training tools (our editor, for example, uses them to teach her horse to stand still while mounting), but if misused, they can cause your thousand pound animal to turn into a pouty toddler wanting their candy, which can be scary.
There’s no way to prove for sure whether “over treating” leads to bad behaviour. But after years of working at various barns with hundreds of horses, I couldn’t help but realize that the naughtiest ones were the most spoiled ones.
Just because a horse is fed treats, doesn’t mean they’re spoiled! But we have to remember that horses didn’t evolve with sugar cubes and mints, and we have to consider their natural behaviour before we hand out the cookies.
Here are some things to consider when treat-ing:
Why are you doing it?
Generally, treats are used to reward good behaviour. This can be a great ride, coming to you in the field when called, standing still, picking up feet etc. So in this scenario, horses associate being well behaved with getting a treat right after. If you’re handing out treats for no particular reason, your horse simply associates YOU with treats, and might get grumpy if your pockets are empty.
Is it getting out of hand?
Love bites getting a little ouchy? Turning his hind end toward you when you get him out of his stall? Pushy? Not listening? These are the situations that can escalate fast, and the (difficult) answer is usually less treats, more discipline – not vice versa.
Listen to your horse’s caretaker.
Especially if you’re on full board. You may spend time with your horse every day, but usually someone else is doing the feeding, turning out and in, putting blankets on… they actually get to know your horse very well (perhaps better than you do!). If they mention that your horse is getting snarky or dangerous, ask them how you can work together to get his ground manners on track. They will love you forever.
What are some alternatives?
To show affection and companionship, horses scratch each other’s withers and other hard to reach places. Giving them a good scratch in their favourite itchy spot can feel just as good as eating a carrot for them! Experts recommend not letting horses “groom you back” though, as it can turn into biting. Gently push their head away if they try, and they’ll get the message.
An elderly cowgirl also once told me that when working with youngsters, she would carry a little bottle of molasses in her pocket. If the horse did something “good,” she would smear a little bit on their muzzle. They wouldn’t taste it until they thought to lick their lips a few seconds later. So they loosely associated the cowgirl, and behaving, with a nice sugary treat – but didn’t know it came from her hands per se.
And old cowgirls know what’s what.