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Feeding Your Horse Treats

Updated on December 5, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

What's The Big Deal?

All pets get treats right? Dogs, cats, horses, goats, they even have dried up worm treats for chickens. So why wouldn't you feed your horse daily treats? Some people do, while others don't. Everyone has their reasons, I'm going to take a look at the pro's and con's, the why's and why not's of people feeding their horses treats.

These beauties are what we call pony pizzas.Rice cakes smothered in molasses, crushed peppermints, carrots and apple slices.This is a summer camp favorite!
These beauties are what we call pony pizzas.Rice cakes smothered in molasses, crushed peppermints, carrots and apple slices.This is a summer camp favorite! | Source

Horses Are Much Bigger And Stronger Than Your Average Pet

Think about how excitable your dog gets when he or she knows that they are about to get a treat. They might jump or run in circles, their energy level goes up in anticipation, you the treat feeder, has to be prepared to handle this energy.

Which can mean a lot of different things, it can mean pushing your dog off who is jumping on you, or insisting that he sits or lays before you feed him the treat.

The point is that all animals learn to anticipate routine and learn to anticipate when they might be getting their treats. Naturally, in anticipation of a tasty treat, it is only natural that their energy level might go up out of excitement.

This is easier to manage in smaller animals than it is in horses. Horses that come to know when they are going to get treats can quickly become pushy and rude. Sometimes even nippy, if not managed properly

These are the things horses dreams are made of, truck beds filled with apples!
These are the things horses dreams are made of, truck beds filled with apples! | Source

Be The Leader

Just like everything else with horses, your horse should be following your lead, anticipating what you want them to do, but waiting respectfully for your leadership.

What does this mean in terms of feeding your horse treats? It means that if you are going to feed your horse by hand, that he should not come into your space to get it.

Our horses should have enough respect of our body language and person space, that even if we have a treat in our hands they do not push us over to get it.

This is a fun little experiment we did to find out horses favorite colors, we put treats on index cards and then had them approach three times and see how often they chose the treat on the same color card. Kids had a blast with it.
This is a fun little experiment we did to find out horses favorite colors, we put treats on index cards and then had them approach three times and see how often they chose the treat on the same color card. Kids had a blast with it. | Source

How To Encourage Good Behavior When Feeding Treats

It is easy to encourage good behavior when feeding treats because you can insist on it. In other words, if they don't wait respectfully, they don't get it.

If your horse is tied up, you will not give him the treat if he is pawing or moving around anxiously.

If you are holding your horse on a leadline, you will have established your space. In other words, your personal "bubble" around yourself. That is your space, for safety. That the horse will only come into when you allow it, and then easily step back out of it when you tell him to.

It is important to keep our horses respectful about getting treats, especially in a barn like mine full of little fingers.
It is important to keep our horses respectful about getting treats, especially in a barn like mine full of little fingers. | Source

Practice Keeping Your Personal Bubble

Practice keeping your personal bubble around yourself and cueing your horse to come in and out of it. You will invite him to come into your space maybe with just a little tug on a leadline, or just holding out your hand. If your horse isn't used to you taking charge and asserting space around yourself he may be eager to get close to you again.

To move your horse out of your space, you can either tug backward on his leadline, or take a whip or crop and tap his chest until he backs up. The key to this is that as you are asking him to move out of your space that you keep yourself still. You don't move your feet. If you move your feet towards your horse while trying to move them out of your space, you are giving up your personal bubble in order to get him to respect you and move away. You need to stand your ground, just patiently tap him in the chest with the whip, or tugging his lead, not moving your feet from your spot. That way the horse realizes that you are establishing your personal space and that he has to wait for your cue to move in and out of it.

enough said!
enough said! | Source

Does Your Horse Respect Your Space?

If you can get your horse to respect your space as mentioned above. Hand feeding him a treat is a safe thing to do. You allow him to come forward to you to get the treat, or you go to him with it.

You feed treats very deliberately as to make sure that your horse doesn't see you as a human treat dispenser that they can just plow over and get more food.

Unfortunately, I have seen many new horse owners, eager for their horse to "like them", that they went overboard with feeding treats, and turned a horse with good ground manners into a pushy treat fiend. Hopefully, by reading this article, you won't have to learn this lesson the hard way!

Some horses and ponies, like my Fluffer, get a bit pushy over the possibility of food or treats.
Some horses and ponies, like my Fluffer, get a bit pushy over the possibility of food or treats. | Source

You Don't Want To Have To Have Treats In Order To Get Your Horse To Do Something

You don't want your ability to do something with your horse to depend on whether or not you have a pocket full of treats. Your horse should not expect or demand treats, they should take them politely when you offer them. They should be able to be caught, tacked, feet picked and all that good stuff, because they are well mannered and respectful, not because they want food.

Finn is looking a little goofy in this picture. He doesn't get hand treats very often, but when he does he is very mannerly and respectful about it.
Finn is looking a little goofy in this picture. He doesn't get hand treats very often, but when he does he is very mannerly and respectful about it. | Source

Putting Treats In Your Horses Feed Pan

If you want to be able to feed your horse treats, but have not yet quite established the respect that you feel is necessary to feed a treat safely by hand, putting it in their feed pan is a good option.

That way they will get the treat when they eat their feed and don't necessarily associate getting treats directly with you. Feeding your horses treats is fine, we just don't want them to lose respect and just think of you as the human treat dispenser.

Mixing treats in your horses feed or dropping them in your horses feed pan is always a good and safe option.
Mixing treats in your horses feed or dropping them in your horses feed pan is always a good and safe option. | Source

It Depends On The Horses Personality As Well

I have horses in my barn that gently take treats from little kids after lessons day after day and never become pushy or rude about it.

My big retired gelding I never feed by hand because if I do he immediately becomes a 17hand treat monster, pounding on the stall for more treats. One is never enough for him! It's obnoxious behavior so the only way he ever gets fed treats is by having them dropped in his feed pan.

I have seen horses with good manners, get spoiled and rude by being fed treats by hand. Then I have had to see their owners learn the hard way how to re-establish respect with their horse on the ground.

Kemer, my old gelding, looks meek and mild in this picture, but feed him a treat by hand and he becomes a treat monster.
Kemer, my old gelding, looks meek and mild in this picture, but feed him a treat by hand and he becomes a treat monster. | Source

Safety First

You being safe on the ground is much more important than your horse getting a carrot or an apple after you ride him. Take it from someone who is healing from a TBI, respect from your horses on the ground is the foundation of your safety around them.

As long as you are thinking about how and when you are feeding your horse treats, and you insist he stay mannerly about it, you will be good to go! You get to feed your baby treats and he or she gets to enjoy them.

If they are not mannerly enough to allow that to happen then you should do the groundwork to teach them your personal space, and until you master it, just feed them their treats in their feed pan.

We even teach about treat feeding at summer camp.
We even teach about treat feeding at summer camp. | Source

To Treat Or Not To Treat?

We all have our own opinions about whether or not feeding our horses treats is a good idea or not. Personally, I think it is more about how you do it then whether you do it. As long as you are encouraging respectful behavior on the ground from your horse there is no reason not to do it.

Trust me, you don't want to become a human treat dispenser. Human treat dispensers get hurt!!

Pony popsicles  made at summer camp, and safe to feed since they hang on the walls in the stall!
Pony popsicles made at summer camp, and safe to feed since they hang on the walls in the stall! | Source

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