Horses love food. I can relate! But too often a horse’s behavior becomes annoying or even dangerous when he’s obsessed about eating. Here are three tricks I’ve found that transform a horse’s behavior at feeding time. I call them tricks because they work like magic. By the way, these aren’t all that advanced but they’re not for beginners, either.
Back before eating. Backing isn’t natural for a horse. Psychologically and physiologically, he’s a forward animal. But you’re going to teach him to back away from food upon your command. Teach this with your horse in a rope halter and lead rope so you have some control. Bring him to his feed and make sure he sees it. Now ask him to back up. You’ll need to use the standard natural horsemanship techniques of pressure and release, rewarding the slightest try and progressively raising your expectations. When you get something you can reward, you will not only stop asking but also invite him forward to eat. Yippee. Some horses catch on to this game so quickly they will start anticipating your cue and backing away from the food before you’ve asked. If that happens, do nothing until he stops backing. Then ask him to back some more and reward with feeding. Our Icelandic Horse, Fidla, would start backing when she saw us coming toward the barn. It was like she was saying, “See? See? Can I eat now, already?”
Pretend you don’t want it. This is a little game I’ve taught several horses. But I need to reiterate that this is not for beginners. Hand-feeding treats is a good way to get hurt if you haven’t established boundaries of space and behavior with your horse. So don’t attempt this unless you are absolutely certain you can do it safely. Start with your horse in a halter and lead rope. Stand a few feet in front of him. Make sure he knows you have a treat and is looking directly at you. Then say, “pretend you don’t want it.” At first, he won’t know what you mean, so you may have to say it again, and again. At some point, however, he will move his head slightly to one side or the other. It’s just a random movement. Instantly praise him and give him the treat. Try it again. He may get worse before he gets better, but eventually he will respond by turning completely away from you, just like he’s saying, “Take it away; I’m not interested.” Again, he is showing a willingness to put responding to your request above his primal desire to eat. By the way, don’t repeat this trick too many times. A rookie mistake is to keep repeating something until the horse fails or refuses. Don’t be that guy. Look for a good place to end as soon as he gets the hang of it. When you stop on a good note, your horse will likely be better next time.
Vary feeding time. What happens when a horse gets used to being fed at precisely the same times each day? Right! He freaks out if you’re even a few minutes late. So don’t be so predictable! Vary the time by up to two hours. If you normally feed at 6 am, make it 6:45 or 7:58 some days. He’ll get used to it, I promise. And remember, multiple small feedings throughout the day are healthier than two big feedings. There’s a bonus to this strategy, by the way. You have more flexibility in your own schedule. You can actually finish dessert before leaving the restaurant with that apologetic, “Sorry, I have to feed!”
Final thought. Food is a powerful motivator for horses. Yes, a horse can be taught without the use of food rewards. No, you can’t always get a treat to a horse at the right moment to reinforce his behavior. But food is still useful in training because it is completely unambiguous to the horse. He doesn’t have to wonder if you’re really happy with him. If you give him food, life is good.