Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Feeding Treats

By Laura Crum

Awhile ago I read a, shall we say, spirited discussion on another blog about feeding horses treats by hand. Some were for, some were against—enthusiastically so. So yesterday, while my little boy and I were giving each horse in turn an apple that we’d picked from our apple tree, I thought, with an inward smile, that at one time I would have been amongst those who were adamantly opposed to feeding treats. In fact, in theory, I still am. Ah, the difference between theory and practice….

I decided this would make a good subject for a blog post, so today I am going to discuss, not whether we should or shouldn’t hand feed our horses treats, but rather why it doesn’t matter as much as I used to think it did, and the difference between theory and practice.

First off, the way I got to be one of these folks who sneers at hand feeding treats (in theory, anyway) has a lot to do with how I was “raised” in the horse biz. My tough old team roper uncle would no more have considered feeding one of his horses a treat than he would have considered calling them pets. I was raised to think of people who behaved in this silly way as somewhat ridiculous, not real horsemen who we, the real deal, looked down upon. It wasn’t said outright, but everything implied it. At some point or other I absorbed the viewpoint that not only was it “silly”, but it made horses pushy, rude and mouthy. To some degree, I still subscribe to this viewpoint. I don’t, in general, feed my horses treats by hand. But…

At a later point in my career with horses, about the time I took up team roping, in my thirties, I began to get a little less rigid about how I treated my horses. I began to play around more. If I ate an apple, I’d hand the core to my horse. If I drank a beer, I’d pour some in my palm for Gunner, who turned out to absolutely love beer. I didn’t worry about making Gunner pushy, mouthy or rude (and he wasn’t). I just enjoyed having fun with him.

Then I had a kid. I began by teaching him not to hand feed stuff to the horses. It just makes sense. Why lose one of those little fingers? But my kid got older. He read books, he talked to other kids, he had ideas of his own. He wanted to feed his horses cookies and apples and carrots. I taught him to put the treats in the manger. But then he wanted to hand them to his beloved pony. I let him. The pony had very good manners. No harm resulted.

Eventually my kid wanted to give his horse, Henry, a birthday party, complete with heart shaped cookies to be hand fed to each horse, “to show that we love them.” I couldn’t say no. Some of the horses take treats nicer than others. I handed the grabby ones (who I believe have been hand-fed by previous owners) their treats, and let my kid hand over the treats to the polite ones. We got through the party, though I couldn’t suppress the occasional inward eye roll. This was certainly not the “cowboy way” I was raised with. But we did have fun.

And now, from time to time, we go down to the barnyard and distribute apples. Mostly we put them in the mangers. Depends on which horse. Do I think this is a good idea? Sort of. I have to say, anything that makes us feel connected to our horses and helps us enjoy them is not really a bad thing. I don’t, however, allow my kid to feed the more mouthy horses treats by hand. It just makes sense to me. I don’t want to spend my time punishing these horses for grabbing. Its better not to encourage them.

So what do I end up with? In theory I don’t believe in feeding treats by hand. In practice, well, I sometimes feed treats by hand and I sometimes don’t. Depends. How’s that for a nice clear statement? In my own defense, let me quote the famous Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi. “You’re perfect just the way you are, and you could use a little improvement.” That pretty much sums up my practice.

So how about you guys? Any insights on this subject?


Anonymous said...

I feed treats as part of clicker training, and as part of that I train the horse to take a step back before I feed the treat and to wait for me to approach - no mugging or pushiness. So my horses are less pushy, rather than more, and I never have any problems. I think when you combine feeding treats with a horse who has no idea how to stay out of your space, and in fact thinks you want him in your space, that a problem exists. Some people forget how large and powerful horses are, and safety and personal space (mine) on the ground always come first.

Laura Crum said...

Kate-- I really know nothing about clicker training. My own feeling about hand feeding treats comes partly from my "cowboy" background, as I explained in the post. I do know that our pony, Toby, who had defintely been fed many treats in his life, was also very polite about taking them, so someone did a good job of training him to be mannerly about hand feeding.

I think that if what you are doing is working for you and you feel safe around your horses, than its great. I don't tolerate pushy behavior in my horses--at all. I do find that some of them are less careful than others taking an apple from a hand, and, to be honest, I'm not very interested in retraining them in this area. It works for me just not to handfeed them. I expect them to be mannerly on the ground and under saddle and I concentrate my efforts there.

Funny thing is, horses I've raised, or who are ranch raised, and thus seldom been handfed, are always very careful and respectful when I hand them an apple. Its kind of fun to give them the occasional treat. They look so suprised.

Gayle Carline said...

I have two horses, my mare Frostie and her son Snoopy. Frostie is very good about letting me touch her face in general. I can hand feed her without her being pushy, and she frequently holds her nose out for me to kiss. Snoopy, on the other hand... oy. I'd no more hand feed him than I would hand feed Jaws. Treats go in the manger, period. My trainer thinks I somehow "taught" him to be mouthy, but I never hand fed him as a baby. His doctor thinks he's just ADD.

So I guess my answer is much like yours - it depends on the horse and the circumstance.


Mel said...

I'm with you Laura. As a rule, I do not feed treats. Period. That being said I have a very sweet mare right now, who is a DOLL about being hand fed. In the middle of an endurance ride, when a little kid walks up with a carrot and wants to feed her, I have no reservations about saying yes, because she will go slow, not chomp down and will actually avoid his little fingers.

I do find myself feeding her sometimes. But they aren't treats - we will share something. After a run (I hand jog her) we share an apple 50/50. On the trail, we split nature valley granola bars. That's about it. It's less about a treat and more about a shared experience. Even though I'm still adamentally against hand feeding, especially when a horse gets "pushy" I haven't seen ANY difference from when I feed her by hand and when I don't. Maybe treat feeding people that foster pushy horses are fostering that behavior in other ways to? For example, the treat feeding behavoior is only an indication of other behaviors that the typical treat-feeding-owner does?

I have a friend who feeds treats to her horses ALL THE TIME. Her horses are - you guess it - pushy and mouthy. HOWEVER. She doesn't insist on personal space EVER. If she fed treats and still insisted on personal space, would it be an issue?

Petra said...

thanks for bringing this issue up...I am one of those people who has always treats in their pocket and loves to hand feed them...I find a treat to be one of the best training aids will motivate a lazy horse to eagerly respond, bring a little subdued horse from his shell, shows appreciation for a job well done and makes the time spend around people more enjoyable...that said, there are hand treat feeding rules...i always bring a treat for my horses when I come to their paddock, but they need to work for them - i wiggle my finger and they will back up, stand politely, put their heads down and wait for their treat...if I work around them,my horses know that the only way to get a treat is too stand quietly with their neck straight (no neck bending and looking for treats) and head down...i believe that if you are consistent and never encourage inappropriate behaviour, treats are the way to go!! just today I had fantastic results with a young horse who refused to pick up his front feet...he gave his feet after quite a struggle, so when that happened and I got the foot, i turned around and slipped him a treat, several days later he picks them up in no time...again if he started turning around or ``checking my butt`, he`d be asked not to do so with a little `butt check``on my part...treats can make training fun for horses, it`s just up to us to set boundaries and don`t encourage inappropriate beahviours as the worst we can do is reward a naughty horse...but overall I agree with the ``depends on horse and a circumstance approach``...

kel said...

I feed treats to some of mine and some of them don't get them. It just depends on the horse. I have been taught to never feed a stallion anything by hand, I haven't questioned it, I just don't do it. I don't own any stallions and respect the rules of stallion owners. I think that feeeding treats is like any other behavior a horse learns. If they learn to be grabby, pushy, etc and get away with it, they will do it. If you start them out with a set of rules, enforce the rules with consistancy then they will learn abide by them.

kel said...

Could it be like....

it isn't the gun that kills people it is the human on the other end...

same with the treat, it isn't the treat that makes the horse pushy and obnoxious it is the peron feeding it.

gillian said...

I think if taking treats politely to be part of my horses' jobs. The barn where I work is starting to do therapeutic driving so there are lots of kids with varying levels of confidence around horses. Feeding treats is a nice way for kids to get comfortable with horses. Kids hold treats in their flat palms for horses. When horses are rude about treats they are disciplined and when they are polite they get the treat. The discipline part is very important though. I've seen people who skip that part with disastrous results.

Laura Crum said...

Well now, those are some really good points. Its interesting to me how many of you handle this issue about how I do--depends on the circumstances. I was not about to forbid my little boy to hand feed carrots to his beloved and polite pony, who exactly as Mel said, would carefully avoid the little fingers. And again, like you said, Mel, my well-behaved horse, Gunner, did not become pushy when I "shared" my apple or beer with him. And Gayle, that's my feeling exactly--I just don't feed treats to the ones who aren't careful of fingers.

As for training by using treats, I have never done it in my life. This comes from my background, as I explained in the post. I still hang out with a bunch of team ropers, and, I'll be honest, I'd be laughed out of the arena if I ever resorted to treats as training aids. It just ain't the "cowboy way". I have also never felt the need for this sort of reward in training--I was taught to reward a horse in other ways.

This doesn't, however, make it right or wrong. Its just not what I'm used to. For those like Petra and Kate who make it work for them, great. If you're happy and your horses are happy, and you get them trained to suit you, what more can you ask?

The older I get the more I realize that there is more than one way to do anything, and the "right" path has more to do with what works for the individual that what is "right" or "wrong".

I think Mel and kel (gee, that rhymes) have a very good point in saying that maybe its not the treat feeding that's the problem, its the attitude that often goes with feeding treats. Too much "gee you sweet little horsie" and not enough "you get out of my space pronto, kid, or you're in deep sh..."

Anyway, we all agree on needing the horse to be respectful of our personal space and that this is an important safety issue, and I think that's the bottom line. That said, it is interesting how many wide ranging opinions there are on this subject.

Mel said...

I must admit I do not feed treats on my palm. I hold it in my fingers and I expect her to take it gently and slowly. It works well with her.

I think the other part of the puzzle is the horses's "hunger" level. I stuff as many calories down her gullet as she will eat. As my 100 mile endurance horse AND a hardworking dressage horse, she is never hungry because I keep hay in front of her and feed her mashes for extra calories. As a result she's not diving for the treat from being hungry. She's not as nice during a race like Tevis 100. Then she's RAVANOUS and watch out! She's going for that hay in your arms and keep out of the way! LOL. (I don't discipline in this instance - she's a hard working athlete doing something very extreme. She needs the calories and it would be a pointless and cruel excersise to use the opporutnity to "train". As long as she's respectful about it and not invading my space - besides grabbing hay - she gets to do what she wants at checks - eat, drink, relax, mashes, massages etc.)

joycemocha said...

Training my mare to be polite about treats was pretty easy, but she is pushy about making begging faces at friendly people. However, she's still polite about taking the treat.

Essentially, I'd make her back up if she came too close to me at liberty. Now she stops and stretches her nose out and takes the treat with her nose extended. She'll make the begging face but is mannered when the treat appears.

Laura Crum said...

gillian--I had just thought of that point when I saw your comment. If, for instance, I wanted all my horses to be as polite about taking treats as Toby our pony was, I could simply train them to behave this way. The truth is, as I said earlier, I haven't been particularly motivated to train the horses to take treats nicely, as I don't, in general, feed treats (!) Now I'm back to square one. But if I did want to feed treats then I agree, it would be important to discipline the horse who was not careful enough in the way he took them.

Laura Crum said...

joycemocha--what does your mare's "begging" face look like? I'm curious.

And all--none of my horses will push into a person's space--I'm very consistent about this and they know better. Since I seldom handfeed them, they get no "training" in this area. What I find is that the ones who have been fed treats in past homes are apt to snatch up the treat eagerly, which becomes a "finger" issue, even if the treat is held flat on the palm. I suppose, if I wished to teach them to take treats politely, I would punish them for this hasty attitude. However, so far, I just tell my kid and all visitors to put the treats in the manger. And we're all happy.

Laura Crum said...

I just thought of something funny. Of all our horses, my son's horse, Henry, is the most apt to grab at a treat. He doesn't mean badly, he's just a chowhound, and had a former owner who both fed him treats and allowed him to graze under saddle (another thing I never do). But here's the ironic part--Henry went in for colic surgery last Jan. On our many visits to the equine center, I repeatedly saw the staff using handfed treats as reinforcers. To get the horse to stand quiet for some procedure usually. It worked in spades on Henry. And was probably better than a tranquilizer--cheaper, anyway, they didn't charge me for the treats. But no one ever asked me if I minded this--not once. And it has certainly contributed to Henry's overeagerness at the sight of anything that resembles a horse cookie.

Mel said...

Now that's an interesting point - grazing under saddle.

I think this is realted to treats.

I let my horse graze under saddle - in my sport I think it's very useful, improves gut sounds ect. In fact, I think a horse that will NOT eat on the trail would be a big mark against it in my book.

BUT - I've noticed that grazing under saddle can QUICKLY lead to unwanted behavior. It's one of those things where you BETTER have an excellent relationship with the horse and be ready to nip it in the bud if it becomes a problem. Exactly like feeding treats. At the FIRST sign of trouble you have to go back to the basics and not allow it for a while.

It's funny how certain behaviors (grazing and treat feeding) can quickly excalate, while other "freedoms" we grant our horses may not excalate as quickly?

For grazing - I give a specific signal ("Do you want to eat" said cheerfully with an uplit"). This signals her that she will be allowed a couple of bites and then needs to move on. At this point I rarely have to even tell her to "walk on" after a couple of bites. During a ride I let her regulate herself (within reason). She spends most of the ride trotting/cantering. If she slows to a walk on her own, she's hungry and looking for a likely spot. I've learned to ancipate where she's going to stop. She'll grab 1-2 bites, walk on, take another 1-2 bites and then usually trot on, signalling she's done for a while.

Occasionally I have to say "nope - now we are trotting because we do NOT have all day to get to the vet check! LOL. The vets just laugh and tell me it's not a bad thing she's so hungry and I'm being impatient.

Great post and discussion!

Erin said...

I feed my horse treats by hand, and have done for years. He is 26 now and has never become grabby or pushy -- he knows what his boundaries are. In fact, when little kids come to the barn and want to give a horse a carrot, my trainer has been known to let them feed my horse because he is so gentle and careful about taking treats only with his lips.

He's also great about stopping three feet away when he walks up to me, waiting politely instead of rushing into his stall dragging me along behind him, and so on -- because I've worked with him on this behavior and he knows what's expected.

Plus he's awesome, which he does all by himself.

Laura Crum said...

Mel, I see your point. When you are doing 100 mile rides and the like, the grazing makes sense. And you obviously have a good relationship with your horse. My feeling about grazing under saddle is very similar to my feeling about handfeeding treats. In general, it leads to problems (just like you said) and, again, it ain't the cowboy way I was raised with.

Laura Crum said...

And Erin, your horse sounds wonderful. In a way, though, the fact that the trainer lets kids feed your horse carrots because he is careful, reinforces the fact that many horses are not. Toby, our pony, was careful, too. I wonder if this is a trait that can truly be taught--or are some horses just inclined this way?

Joy said...

love the post. I think it comes down to situations. There are times when I wouldn't hand feed a treat to my horse. (if he's being pushy or a poop or whatever) But I do hand feed treats. And I do not get bitten. And my horses respect my space. One time my horse got greedy and he learned that was not acceptable. He's got a good memory and it's never been a problem since.
I guess it's a matter of preference. But I like to give my horse a cookie or apple or pez. He (and the other horse that is kinda "mine") will nibble them from my fingers so carefully. It's fun. So there!

Laura Crum said...

Joy--I always enjoy your comments. I know just what you mean. Twister, my boarder, who came from a North Dakota ranch, nibbles a treat so carefully and respectfully, and with such amazed suprise in his eyes, that I am often tempted to give him an apple or such. Its so much fun.

AareneX said...

New reader here. I have a sweet mare and a pushy/chowhound.

For Sweet, she does a trick called "pleeeeease" where she tilts her head sideways in a very appealing way. Very cute, and also a very non-agressive posture. Anybody can feed this horse by hand.

For PushyChowhound, I taught her "look away", where she doesn't just take a step backwards, but also must *turn her head and neck away* from the treat. I will feed this horse by hand ONLY if "look away" is done promptly, with politeness and deference. I don't recommend that anybody else feed her by hand. She's a "give an inch, take a mile" horse anyhow!

stilllearning said...

I feed treats in a variety of ways, and it varies with each horse and circumstance. I carefully and constantly reinforce manners, much as described here, again depending on the horse.

I've just never quite understood why the topic brings out so much vehemence on both sides.

Seeing today's topic made me cringe a little. Seeing the number of comments made me chuckle.

HorsesAndTurbos said...

I'm in the "depends on the horse" category.

My mare, Starlette, is very, very gentle taking treats. She will not touch your hand at all...just lifts the treats out of your hand, being very, very careful.

My mini-Cooper (rescue)on the other hand has/had awful manners...but he was treated like a dog, allowed to roam like a dog (no fence!)and was a stud to boot! He basically needed to learn manners after he lost his jewels and came to me:)

He went through a stage of no hand treats, then when he was respectful, got one...if he waited for me to put it under his mouth and gently took it. If he grabbed, I banged his mouth with my hand/treat until he stopped and thought about it. When he was good, I gave him the treat. I also made sure I gave bigger pieces to save my hands :)

We are up to two treats(and I don't do this daily...just when I think of it), and if he gets grabby, the second one goes away. He's very smart and is figuring it out.

They can learn if it matters to you. Because Cooper is cute and kids visit, I wanted him to have great manners and be safe.

Jayke said...

Haha I saw the topic and thought "I know which blog this was from!"

I'm not a treat feeder by nature. But there are three horses that come to mind that I've used it successfully with:

1) Maverick - he came to us as a weanling, a boarder. He was so underweight and disinterested in humans that I used apples and carrots to bring him around to the idea that we aren't all mean people. He was a very stand offish horse, so hand feeding was never once an issue.

2) Jack - He's a yearling belonging to my instructor. She recently had a huge influx of horses in for training, and as a result, Jack is not halter broke, and a tad head shy. He also doesn't know how to take treats. I use apples and sugar cubes on him to hold his attention (he just moves them around my hand with his lips really) while I rub his head and ears. Then the treats go in the tub.

Oliver - My gelding, I have never hand fed him until recently. At the end of a ride if he's been well behaved, I'll slip him a handful of grain to reinforce the positive experience.

Every other horse I've come across has never really seemed to benefit or care if they are hand fed or not, so I don't bother with them.

Great topic, there are a million different opinions.

Laura Crum said...

yes, Jayke and stillearning, I found the vehemence expressed in the previous discussion both amusing and disconcerting. From time to time I mulled the subject over in my mind, wondering what I really thought about it. As you can see, it doesn't bring up much vehemence in me. I pretty much expressed my views in the post, and I also feel that what I said in the comments is true. There is more than one path, and if your path is working for you, that's great. Doesn't matter if it isn't the same as mine. And it seems to me that everybody who commented here had a reasonable point of view.

It is funny about all the comments. As I told my husband, I write posts all the time about things that I think are quite interesting, and nobody comments much. Then I write a post about feeding treats, which doesn't interest me much as a subject (I just feel its a matter of personal choice as long as you get the point that a horse who is not respectful of your space is dangerous),and though I enjoy hearing others' viewpoints, and its fun that lots of people comment, I remain puzzled why this subject is so interesting to so many. Just one more item on the list of things that puzzles me, I guess.

Anyway, Jackie, and all, it looks like most of us are in the same camp. Feeding treats depends on the circumstances. In general, I don't do it, but then again, once in awhile, I do.

And Aarene X, thanks for visiting. I enjoyed your description of your two horses and their behavior.

stilllearning said...

As an experiment maybe you should write about politics or religion next, to compare the number of comments?


At first I thought the vehemence was due to the inherent danger of the uninformed passing out goodies to 1000# animals, but that doesn't seem to be it...

Thought maybe it was a "pros and those in the know don't" and it was a "them vs us" thing, but the opinions go across the board...

Haven't figured it out yet. I'll continue to do as I see fit, and let others do the same. I tried to make a "do what you like but why talk about it?" comment in the past and got (ahem) blasted, so I'll quit here.

Interesting topic.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--what I think is interesting is all the interest in the topic--just like you say. I'm not interested in hand feeding my horses--though I do it to please my kid occasionally, as I said in my post. I'm not sure why people seem to like to discuss this subject so much, though I did enjoy the discussion. Nobody seemed inclined to be cranky, though I remember your comment on mugwump's blog and the response.

Yes, if I wanted more comments, I should probably switch to more controversial subjects, or blast other horse people regularly, or give advice on horse training. None of these things interests me, though. I guess I'll stick to my somewhat philosophical musings on horses and how we relate to them and write about them--it seems to be what I enjoy. What I really should do is get back to working on my book...this is the problem with blog discussions--I get interested and do this rather than what I ought to be doing.

Thanks for your comments--I enjoy them.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--I don't mean to imply that mugwump "blasted" you, by the way. As I recall it was another person who was engaging in the comments discussion who took offense. I thought mugwump's points were excellent, and very fair, and it was thinking over what was said that got me started on this post.

stilllearning said...

If you started doing the "hot topics" I'd probably drift away. I enjoy gentle discussions and hate bashing.

I've enjoyed the open discussions so much on mugwumps that I've ventured to a few other friendly sites, like this one. It's fun, and I'm learning some new ways of looking at things. Thanks.

And yes, I usually find blog discussions more enticing than what I should be doing, too.

Laura Crum said...

stillearning--its raining here today, so I feel sort of justified in playing around making comments--I can't ride and I'm maxed out on "real" writing.

I won't start in on hot topics--doesn't interest me and wouldn't fit this site. I, too, enjoy kind, open discussions and don't care for bashing. Its part of the reason I gave up commenting on other sites--though the biggest reason is lack of time.

I'm not apt to offer much horse training advice, either, as I have never considered myself a horse trainer. In fact, in my next post, I think I'm going to ask you all for horse training advice. Its very interesting to get suggestions from people in other disciplines--its often something I never would have thought of.

The Mane Point - a Haven for Horse Lovers said...

Do I feed my horse/s by hand?

Guilty as charged.

Still, here's what happened recently to a young friend at our barn - with her own horse:

Michele said...

I am a total treat feeder. The horses see me coming, and I think their brain goes, "Aha--cookie lady is here." I can't help myself. I'm weird. My dad is more of the old school and says they only like me because I feed them treats! Maybe they like me better because I feed treats, but I think they'd like me anyway. LOL.

Mel said...

Mane point - in the case referenced, wouldn't the accident had happened regardless of whether the treat was fed in a bucket or by hand? Afterall the injury was caaused by reaching in the horses mouth during a choke episode (which could have occured no matter how the treat was fed), not by feeding the treat?