This is a hot topic and there is no consensus, even among top clinicians and trainers. I once moderated a round table discussion between Monty Roberts, John Lyons, and Pat Parelli at a big horse expo. They seemed to agree on everything until someone asked about hand-feeding treats. Monty said we should never do this, as it was completely unnatural for the horse and dangerous for the human. John said he wanted his horse so broke that even his little grandson could safely do it. And Pat said … wait for it … you can do anything if you have enough savvy.
That’s a big if, which is exactly why many clinicians argue against hand-feeding treats. If your horse does not respect your space, introducing food into the equation is like throwing gasoline on a fire.
How do you get your horse to respect your space? First, you have to claim your space as your own and never, ever allow your horse to enter it uninvited. You must defend your space with whatever amount of energy is required to get the point across. And this is important: you have to be consistent. If crowding into your space is wrong today, it has to be wrong tomorrow and every day after that. There must be a negative instant consequence (a NIC, in Monty Roberts’s words) to that behavior every single time.
Once you have developed this absolute commitment to defending your space and consistently communicated it to your horse, the rest is pretty easy. Training with food rewards is a time-honored tradition with marine animals and circus animals, including horses. Clicker training uses it very successfully and you can, too. It’s effective because food means something to a horse. There is total clarity with food. Food is always good. In fact, Diana recently broke through a genuine impasse in training her horse, Fidla, by introducing food as a reward.
Bottom line, hand-feeding treats to your horse can be done safely and have a positive effect on overall behavior, but it is not a trivial matter. Please do not attempt it until your horse consistently respects your space and you feel completely comfortable around him. Be clear and consistent, and most important, enjoy it! Seeing your horse gobble up something tasty is one of horse ownership’s special little pleasures.
Next time I’ll share the game we play with our horses to reinforce proper behavior with treats. We call it “pretend you don’t want it.”