I have mentioned several times a game that we play with our horses that reinforces the right way to receive a food treat. We call the game, “Pretend you don’t want it.” I’ve been asked to explain it in print, so here goes. I’ll use my mare, Candy, in the example.
I have Candy in a rope halter with a lead rope so I have a measure of control over her. I step in front of her and ask her to stand quietly and look at me from a respectful distance. I hold the treat up, say her name and make sure she is looking straight at me. Then I say, “pretend you don’t want it.” She swings her head around to one side, almost looking at her tail. I say, “good girl!” and give her the treat. (Going away from food is not instinctive to a horse. It must be learned. We also require our horses to back up at feeding time, but that’s another story.)
Teaching this game is no different than teaching any other cue. You reward the slightest try, and each time you expect a little more. You give her time to think about it between attempts, and you find a good note to end on. Don’t expect her to learn this perfectly the first day and don’t repeat it too many times. Better to work on it a little every day. Final tip: she will start anticipating you, meaning she will start swinging her head around before you’ve asked for it. Do not reward that! We don’t want to reward a horse for anticipating our cues, even if it’s to do something good.
Oh, yes – and this goes back to the actual technique of hand-feeding the treat – Candy is not allowed to move her feet toward me to collect her treat. I reach toward her and she stretches her neck out to gently take the treat from the palm of my hand.