I used to give treats to horses while I was working with them. A treat for being caught, a treat for opening their mouth for the bit, a treat for standing while I mounted. My pockets were filled with sweet feed – leftover grain “mulch” would regularly spill into the washing machine from my jeans.
Several professional trainers, from cowboys to dressage divas, warned me off this practice. “Horses won’t respect you if they take food from your hand,” they all said, shaking their heads.
They also thought it was dangerous. I decided to believe the professionals and stopped using treats. And I did notice a difference – the horses no longer crowded my space, looking for a handful of grain or a horse cookie.
Was that really such a big deal though? After all, the horses and I knew each other well – I couldn’t imagine that they would hurt me, even if they occasionally crowded me.
I was wrong.
One of the horses had been raised as a foal by inexperienced horse people. They loved their colt, the first of their breeding crop – and treated him like a puppy. He was hand-fed and taught cute tricks and fussed over. He loved people and would trot up to them, eager for treats. The colt would follow his owners right on their heels, nudging their backs with his nose, until they paid attention to him, feeding him carrots and other goodies.
He was a sweet, friendly, cute baby. And he grew up to be a sweet, friendly, cute gelding. I loved working with him – he was fun to ride, liked to follow me around the pasture and even tried to climb on the porch with me. He was one of my all-time favorite horses.
Until he bit me on the chest.
What happened? He was following me too closely while I carried a feed bucket – so I turned to shoo him away. That day, he decided he was 1000 pounds, fully grown and really ought to be the herd boss. And he did a rapid, snake-like move with his head and bit me. Who was I to shoo him away, anyway?
Of course, he immediately regretted that bite – as shrieking noises, the bucket, and a halter all suddenly rained on his head. To this day, he isn’t allowed to come within ten feet of his feed bucket until after the grain is scooped.
So – who is at fault here? The horse? Me? The breeders?
The answer is me.
Because I ignored warning signs that he was being disrespectful on the ground. To me, he was just being playful – I could trust him. After all, I knew him well. His puppy-like personality seemed so sweet, so non-threatening – I didn’t see the spoiled horse beneath the cute antics.
The gelding and I learned a valuable lesson that day about horse-human dynamics – and we both are much wiser (and happier) because of that.
But I’d hate for anyone else to have to learn this “the hard way” – like I did.
So please be careful about training with treats. You never know what you might be setting in motion – what might literally bite you (or someone else) in the butt one day.