Question: I noticed that you are sponsored by Winnie's Cookies but I have always heard that you are against feeding cookies or treats. What is your position on feeding treats?
Answer: I am not against feeding treats. I do think it is more appropriate for the treats to be put in a bucket rather than given by hand. The reason is that horses are very condition response animals and they soon catch on that when you come to the barn you have something good for them. I know that many of you like your horse to welcome you with a nicker when you come into the barn. However, it is not your presence as much as the anticipation of a treat that elicits the warm welcome. I have proved this many times over.
There is nothing wrong with your horse recognizing and welcoming you when you come into the barn. The problem is that the horse starts looking for and expecting the treat. Horses also figure out where you keep the treats. Sometimes treats are kept in a shirt or jacket pocket and horses are quick to discover where the treat is. I have seen too many incidents where a horse has injured the owner, not from meanness, but from reaching for a treat. A friend of mine in San Diego lost part of a breast because her horse was reaching for the treat she always kept in her shirt pocket. I have had more than one client get bitten on the hand because a horse is reaching for a treat. I had a client at the barn who I repeatedly asked not to hand feed her horse. She continued to feed the horse by hand and within a short time the horse nipped off the end of her finger. She went to the emergency room, I found the finger tip, and the doctor was able to reattach it. The event was traumatic for everyone involved and it was certainly not the fault of the horse.
There is nothing wrong with giving your horse a treat. I am sponsored by Winnie's Cookies and one of the things I like about them is that they are made fresh with natural products and there is real thought put into the recipe. I haven't found a horse that doesn't like them. They have nutritional value and work as a supplement. Carrots and apples are always good treats and are good for horses too. It is not the giving of a treat that can cause a problem. It is the method. Horses by nature have a tendency to get pushy. I have an entire barn full of horse moms who love their horses and want to spoil them but the horses do get pushy.
Sometimes I have a hard time convincing my clients that to be safe, a horse must have good ground manners. Last year I sold a nice quiet horse with good ground manners. The new owner decided the horse was too much for her and brought the horse back in for help. When they came into the barn, I noticed that the horse was leading and pulling her along. The horse had foundation training and I took the lead rope and asked the horse to back up. We walked off with 18 to 24 inches of slack in the lead rope and he was not pulling on me. It is a matter of respect and the behavior we as owners permit. We must have control on the ground. When we set the standard of what is acceptable behavior from our horse, we get the relationship with the horse that we really want. When a horse is pushing or pulling on you, you can get hurt. At this time of year with new grass coming up, horses will pull away from us to get a mouthful. Grass is a big treat and if you allow the horse to get to the grass any time you are walking by a patch, he will always pull on you when it is near. That is not acceptable behavior. Your horse should always walk calmly beside you, neither pulling ahead nor dragging behind. He should stop the moment you stop and if he does not, you should back him up and stop him.
In my experience during the last twenty years of doing horse expos, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people get hurt on the ground. Being stepped on or bitten by a horse looking for treats is not pleasant. A friend of mine, who is also a trainer, was working with a horse that was really spoiled and he was bitten in the arm. The horse was frustrated because it was not getting the treat it was accustomed to. My friend lost part of the muscle in his upper arm. Actually, more people are injured on the ground from incidents like this than from falls.
Many horses are actually trained using treats; this is called Clicker Training. Clicker Trainers will also tell you that there must be respect for the trainer's personal space. Learning tricks and to trailer load can be done that way however, the question is, can we control a horse with treats? The answer is no. A horse that is frightened or injured and needs to be loaded, is not going to respond to food. There is a need to maintain the integrity of the horse's respect for us. In my experience, generally, most women are unable or are unwilling to do this. I don't mean this in a derogatory way but I do see that when horses become pushy many ladies are not willing to match that aggression with the appropriate amount of pressure to drive the horse away.
To recap, I understand that women are naturally nurturing and want to give their horses treats. I am not against this but please, do it safely and put the treat in a bucket or the feed bin. The horse is still going to welcome you with a nicker. And, be aware that if your horse has gotten pushy, you could be in danger. Take the time to correct the behavior and have a better and more enjoyable relationship with your horse. If you do give cookies, I hope you'll check out Winnie's website.