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?