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Hand Feeding – Yay or Neigh? One Rider’s Perspective.

Posted on: January 03, 2019 by Rick Larsen

I know people who are adamantly against hand feeding. I know others who are just as adamantly in favor. I find myself in the middle between those two extremes. What do I gain and what do I give up by straddling the electric fence of the hand feeding conundrum? In short, I gain food as a powerful motivator to shape behavior. But in so doing, I alter the relationship and muddy my ability to clearly communicate with the horse in his own body language, which many people call feel.

Food is a powerful motivator. I have a pony my daughter rode for years. When she outgrew him, I kept him in the family. I felt that he needed a job, so we do trick training together. He loves the attention. He will offer learned behaviors to net food rewards and at one point was even performing tricks for another horse to convince the other horse to yield his dinner. The other horse ignored him, but it was still adorable!

I hand feed my own horses for two reasons. Either I am shaping a behavior using treats as positive reinforcement, or I like the attention that I get from being (potentially) a human vending machine.

However, I think it creates an unnatural relationship between horses and people when we hand feed. Except for mothers feeding babies, it is unusual for one animal to offer food to another. Regardless, I do in fact chew up bits of carrots to feed to my older horse who is nearly toothless. He couldn’t eat them otherwise. I also show up some mornings with a banana. The horses get very excited about the banana.

The challenge in hand feeding is to make sure that my boundaries are clear. I expect my horses to wait their turn and if anyone gets pushy, I blame myself. That means that I didn’t see a problem shaping up before it became apparent. I require my horses to be patient and if I ask them to yield, I must be able to ask without the horse being offended. If they do become offended, how is that different from them feeling scolded? It isn’t. In my experience, any time I felt any desire to scold a horse, I was much better off scolding myself for poor timing or presentation.

What is wrong with scolding a horse? I think danger lies in what we think we are doing when we scold a horse for being pushy, compared to how the horse interprets being scolded. My theory is that when a horse gets pushy and we scold him, we think we are telling him to be respectful and wait his turn. But here is what I think happens in the horse’s mind.

He is offered a treat. He wants that treat. That created enthusiasm. What happens if I think he is overzealous and pushy? Let’s say I scold him through a slap or loud “no!” When that happens, I believe he perceives treat-getting as a narrow window of opportunity just prior to a scolding. If so, then it would make sense that he might try to snap the treat out of my hand abruptly, prior to getting slapped. Now we are angry because we feel both disrespected and perhaps injured. The horse got a treat and doesn’t understand why that made us angry. There is no justice for either party.

If that behavior becomes habit, then he could be branded as rude, mean or nasty. Horses are born in awe of the human. When the horse is disrespectful, it is usually a human or their predecessor who instilled that behavior through bad timing or by not understanding the horse’s thought process.

Another way that treat giving can go wrong is through the horse perceiving me to be like a human vending machine. I think the analogy is funny but there is also a lot of truth to it. If you put money into a real vending machine and press the buttons, you expect to get something in return, yes? The squiggly thing rotates, and your purchase drops down to where you can retrieve it.

What goes through your mind if you put in your money, press the buttons, watch the squiggly thing turn, but as the item drops, it gets stuck against the glass? Are you one of those people who would give the machine a good shake or kick it to try to free up your purchase? There are horses that feel the same way if they have unmet expectations where it concerns treats. I don’t hand feed those horses. If I want to give a treat to a horse with those thoughts, I put it in a bucket. The bucket removes me from the equation. I also don’t take it personally. The horse learned an un-useful behavior before I came along, and I may or may not have the ability to change that.

Most folks have heard of trick training using a clicker. Clicker training is great! It is in my tool bag amongst many techniques. But I don’t rely solely on this form of reward-based behavioral shaping. What a boring world it would be if we raised our children or animals only by shaping their behavior. I want both two-leggeds and four-leggeds to be able to think for themselves.

Therefore, I mix it up. I may train using positive reinforcement, such as hand feeding treats or rubbing and petting. But I also use so-called negative reinforcement, which is often misunderstood. Many people also call that pressure-release training. That sounds bad! But what if I compared the release to the feeling you get putting the last piece in place for a jigsaw puzzle? And what if I compared pressure to the feeling of doing the puzzle with lots of little mini-releases as the puzzle progresses? If you like puzzles, then pressure-release is cool, yes? The trick is for the horse to feel that he is putting the pressure on himself the same way we put the pressure on ourselves to complete the puzzle.

Finally, what do I mean about hand-feeding diminishing my access to the language of the horse, called feel? Feel is awareness. Feel is when you know that car in the other lane is going to cut in front of you. Feel is when you look across the room at a party and see a stranger and know that you would probably get along with them. Feel is what you see birds do when they fly in formation. Feel is how horses communicate with each other and we can tap into that if we pay attention.

So how does food diminish feel? Let’s say I am at an early-bird buffet and hungry. If so, I pay very little attention to my surroundings. I just want to know what I must do to get a plate and get busy. Similarly, if a horse knows there is a treat to be had, he may not be as attuned to those subtle signals you are sending about personal space like his hooves on your toes. You must be more focused to counterbalance him being more distracted.

After all this, do I condemn hand feeding or treats in general? Far from it. I acknowledge that I like the attention, the horses enjoy it, and treats are a powerful motivator for training certain activities. It is however important to understand that a horse learns and adapts to everything you do any time you are around him. He is still trying to find meaning in every movement we make so if we become complacent, we might create behaviors without intending to do so. When feeding treats, it is critical to pay attention to the horse and his attitude.

If I was to stop hand feeding, my horses would eventually stop expecting it. But I have no plans to do so. Lately I have expanded on my treat giving options. Here are my SmartPak favorites. Consider Hilton Herbals, which are flavored with garlic, mint, oregano and rosemary. We also have Equine Edible Nuggets. These are soft treats I give to my older horse with few teeth. He loved them! And finally a SmartPak favorite; SmartCookies, available in several flavors with no added sugar including Guilt Free Apple Cider Donut, Guilt Free Peppermint Patty, Guilt Free Carrot Cake, and Guilt Free Banana bread.