If there is one simple change to your horsey routine that doesn’t get mentioned much but would really make your farrier’s (actually, everyone’s) life easier, it would be these three words:
Don’t. Feed. Treats.
Before you freak out, yes, there are acceptable, beneficial even, times for treats. Feel free to drop snacks in a bucket any old time you want. (Just realize, this is for your own benefit as a human. Horses really are okay with just their regular foods). Carrot stretches are much easier with actual carrots (or whatever tempting snack you want to use). Trick and clicker training are easier with food reinforcement.
There is research and strong anecdotal evidence that food rewards are good for training horses (and, in case you were wondering, palatability does matter). They even use them at the Spanish Riding School. If you want to hand over a little somethin’ right when your horse does a specific task you’re working on—fantastic!
What I’m talking about is the “treat after a ride, standing in the crossties (or whenever your pony looks cute)” handing over of sweet things when the horse isn’t really doing anything immediately worth rewarding. Using treats to catch the horse every time you need him is another. They get that crazed look of desperation, kind of like a kid walking into Chuck E. Cheese’s. They snatch for your hand. They fidget in anticipation. They generally start acting like a**holes.
I was once a random treater. When I boarded my horse, I generally went with whatever was common in that particular barn. If everyone is handing out treats like candy on Halloween, who was I to deny my horse the sugar rush?
We have one mare, Canela, who had never been hand-fed before we got her. She was super suspicious when I offered her a treat the first time. Her attitude was like, “Why the heck would I want to eat out of your hand? I have no idea where it’s been. Gross.”
I really liked that she would stand tied quietly, just chilling and not looking around, worrying about where I was going and whether I was going to bring her back something delicious from the tack room.
I stopped “treating” the rest of our horses, and now no one is searching my pockets or stretching the crossties to their limit to peek into the tack room while I’m putting away my saddle.
I show our horses in hand a lot (which is a real treat for the spectators, let me tell you). Standing around waiting for our turn to show is boring. Bored horses that think you may hand feed them start looking for treats. Horses looking for treats is not fun, and it is not endearing to the judge.
One trainer suggested a thumb tack in my glove to poke the horse if he was getting mouthy. I don’t know if it would have worked. I had visions of me either being dragged around the ring by an overreacting horse that got poked in the nose, putting my own eye out with the thing, or having the judge randomly want to shake my hand.
Back to my point, though—your farrier (and everyone else that works around your horse) can see two benefits if you stop feeding your horses by hand:
- The horses are not expecting food directly from people, so they’re less likely to “Oopsie, I thought you might have an apple tucked under your shirt” bite.
- You have a highly desireable distraction technique that you haven’t overused. Honestly, we don’t encourage this one, but there are some horses that can be plied with treats to keep them busy while the farrier is working on them. If you have one, keep working on un-bribed good behavior. Don’t waste the magic by making treats a constant thing.
I know people are realistically going to do what they want in regard to feeding their horses. Treats are so important to us as humans, it’s hard to imagine it not being important to our horses, too. Horse bites are no fun, though, and treat-addicted horses are super annoying.
So if you’re going to give treats, make sure you teach your horse some super-cool trick to earn them, like getting a cold drink for you from the fridge. I can assure you, your farrier would dig that!
About the Author
Nancy Rich-Gutierrez is an IT professional and manages her husband’s farrier company. When she’s not busy with her full-time job or running the office for her farrier, she’s chasing their two-year-old and riding her Arabian horses. Check out the HG Horseshoeing blog at hghorseshoeing.com.