Treats are a hot button topic in a lot of places. The usual arguments against them is, “Feeding treats teaches a horse to bite” or “Horses can mistake fingers for carrots.” I have not found these to be true if done properly.
I have 5 horses, at the moment, all of which have been taught to politely take treats. None of them nip or bite and all of them can tell the difference between fingers and treats. I teach every equine which comes through my place to politely and respectfully take a treat because someday they will meet someone with a treat and I want everyone to be safe especially if the “someone” is a child with a chubby fist full of grass.
I believe treats have a place as long as they are given with intentionality and parameters just like every other interaction.
My parameters are:
- Whether or not I have a treat my horse will remain polite and out of my space.
- A treat in my hand remains my treat until I open my hand in front of me.
- If my hand feels in danger of being eaten I can withdraw it to safety, close my hand and not be invaded. I will repeat this until the horse tries more gently.
- Treats are small (the size of 1-8 peas). Horses who have to search for the treat on the hand quickly learn treats come from hands, but hands are not treats.
- I start horses with treats they like but don’t flip out over (hay pellets, a piece of uncooked pasta spiral, dried organic orange peel, etc)
- All treats are earned, even if I’m really out there to get rid of leftover apple slices. A new shy horse in my heard may receive treats for coming within arm’s reach. Horses who know more have to do more. Even if it’s one step they have to do something.
- Backing is a good activity for treat earning and keeps me safe.
- If I don’t have a treat, but am offering my hand to sniff I offer the back of my hand. They quickly learn the difference.
If I had a horse who learned to be so pushy around treats I didn’t feel safe I would start re-training them on the other side of a solid fence. I would avoid electric fences that were on. (I have a horse who had a few bad experiences with other people reaching over our electric fence and shocking her)