How to Give Treats to a Horse Safely
A few months ago, I shared an article called Horses that Bite. In the article I said I don't give horses treats until the biting behaviour has stopped, and they have learnt to turn the head away for treating. Someone asked me to explain how to train this behaviour, so here goes. As always, this is how I do it, I am sure there are other techniques just as effective, I can only share mine. I stand beside the horses’ head and raise my hand containing the treat so the horse can see and smell it. If they turn the head toward me for the treat, I nudge the head away or just wait, depending on the horse and if they are being aggressive or not. I stay in that position, holding the treat and waiting for the horse to try different things out. Basically, I am asking a question, and I am waiting for them to find the correct answer. The moment they turn the head away from me, even if it's to look at someting in the environment, I reach over and give them the treat. This first time can take a while, so be patient. If the horse just doesn't turn the head away at all, to start the behaviour off you can show them the answer by using the lead rope to move the head away, then treating. After a while they'll get the link. It is particularly important to take the treat to them. If you hesitate and give the reward as the head comes back toward you, you are rewarding the wrong behaviour. You are reinforcing the head coming toward you then, so you must be fast and make sure the treat arrives with the head still turned away. This can take a bit of practise, so don't worry if you get the timing wrong the first few attempts. At first, when the horse sees the treat hand moving they will try and come toward it. Later on, they begin to move the head further and further away when the treat hand moves. It can take a few sessions to establish this behaviour. Once you have it on one side, repeat the process on the other side. Some horses think they are being rewarded for going to the right/left, not for turning away. So, when you change sides they will turn right/left instead of away. This is just a misunderstanding on the horses’ part, so be patient with them and start back at the beginning for the other side. Once you have the horse moving their head away consistently from both sides, then it is time to work on duration. Repeat your normal position and when the horse turns the head away, instead of giving the treat straight away hold off for a moment. Count a few seconds and if the horse holds give the treat. If they break and turn toward you, wondering where the treat is as they have done the right thing, just be patient and wait again until they turn away before treating. Slowly increase the amount of time you hold off. This duration training is a gem. It brings a sense of space and calm into the whole treating process. Instead of the horse becoming over excited by treats, they learn self-control and patience. As you can imagine, learning these qualities is going to be of enormous benefit in other areas of your horse training as well. If you find that your horse starts to nip because of being given treats, discontinue treating and work on stopping the nipping as described in the Horses that Bite article. This may be a transitory behaviour and when you go back to training the head away, the nipping does not resume, fantastic. All horses are different, in some cases the horse is not able to learn the self-control and patience required to be able to be given treats safely and without engendering negative behaviours such as nipping and biting. With horses that get over excited, trying out different types of treats can help, as not all treats have the same yumminess level. I know a mare who will rear up if treats appear. She is fine with anything in a bucket but loses all self-control with handheld treats. With these types of horses, it is best not to treat from the hand. If you do want to give a treat, put it in a bucket or on the ground. Many people want to treat a horse after they have worked, and it is an essential part of positive reinforcement training. So it is good to ensure that safety is always maintained, especially if there is any likelihood of children giving the horse a treat. Done correctly, treating can be a pleasure for both human and horse and be completely safe.