A List of Inedible Treats for Your Horse

It’s funny how something someone says can turn over in your mind for years after. I had a visitor, and since I am more comfortable in the barn than the house, I took her into my family pen. Back then, there were five horses, a couple of donkeys, a mini, and a pair of goats. Edgar Rice Burro sees himself as the perfect coffee table. He likes to be in the middle. We were all in a loose circle around him, quietly chatting for an hour or more. Think the way horses stand and swish flies for each other, we were just breathing, sharing space, and under-achieving. It was peaceful. In the horse world, we always say that less is more, but rarely demonstrate it. I think this is what it looks like: no anxiety.

My guest was preparing to leave. Her feet probably hurt; it isn’t like I offered her a chair. She blurted out to the herd, “I have nothing for you,” apologizing. Does she think they expect something from her? I explain that I don’t feed hand treats, but she still checks her pockets. I’m fairly sure the herd thinks she’s looking for chapstick. “Sorry,” she tells the gelding, who reads her anxiety and furrows his brow, worried that he did something wrong. Moments before the visitor was gently touching his neck. “They are just so nice,” she says. I thank her but her words stay with me. Her visit wasn’t nothing. Company is always interesting to the herd. Does she think that peace and acknowledgment are not sweet?

When I write about not hand feeding, I think most people would rather read a description of how to remove a horse’s eye with a teaspoon and no anesthesia, because that’s less cruel than not giving treats.

Here’s how it would go: The poor visitor pulls a couple of carrots out of her pocket and the herd goes on high alert smelling something they can’t quite place… until they do. Then it’s like a domino effect: the chronic ulcer horse is food-aggressive, he comes by it honestly, but he starts pushing. The mini would want some, but he is shy and won’t come close; it’s an existential dilemma. The donkeys get more cautious, but the goats, the most selfish and least likely to share, would start headbutting everyone. Then the young mare would have to bite somebody on general principle because she must restore order to the universe, and whoever she bit would need to escape. I’d be trying to grab the guest and run backward. Edgar prides himself on a slow and steady response so he would freeze on the spot and wait for things to settle, most likely on my escape route. Not to mention, there is enough sugar in an apple or carrot to create an incident for a horse with a gastric disorder. The food-aggressive ulcer horse has now dropped to the ground colicking. No kidding. A bite of sweet feed will do it, too. Sugar is poison.

Disclaimer: Obviously, I’m not talking about clicker training or treats in buckets. There’s an argument that giving hard feed is a kind of hand feeding. You do use your hand. For crying out loud, if you want to split hairs, so is throwing hay.

There are two questions that keep her statement in my head. Why do we feel that we aren’t enough around animals? That we must bribe them to come to us? Do we use food as a shortcut or abbreviation of something we feel? Can we articulate that better? Because being a partner should rise above being a treat dispenser. (Sorry/not sorry.)

And second, and more important, is it our goal to spread anxiety in a herd? Reading your horse’s calming signals, is it possible that the reaction you take as happiness or affection might actually be anxiety? Does our presence unsettle the herd? When we finish working, we cheer the horse for licking and chewing, or yawning or rolling, but what would happen if we didn’t create the anxiety that horses need to release later? What if we behaved as though less was truly more? If horses are looking for safety, then I want to be a respite from the chaos, I want to be the calm eye of the hurricane because horses crave safety most of all.

Trust his intelligence. If you want a better relationship with your horse, then reward them with just that: kindness, peace, and breath.

Affirmative Training is all about rewarding and affirming the horse. It isn’t that we don’t use treats, it’s that we don’t take shortcuts. We constantly reward our horses, but we do it in his language of calming signals. It’s subtle sometimes, but we know the value of an exhale. We’ll change our own personal human calming signals to adjust our body-voice, and take the time necessary to express affirmations to build his confidence. We’ll use our internal energy to become the partner the horse needs. Feeding a carrot would take a whole lot less effort, but would it say the same thing?

As promised, an introductory list of inedible treats:

  • Self-awareness: Share the situational awareness your horse has in his environment. Literally see it his way. Less tunnel vision, more ‘big picture’ understanding.
  • Consistency: be the same person while training that you are when mucking. Be a source of interest and curiosity and not correction and aggravation.
  • Silence: Let the air be mostly still, give him a chance to get a word in edgewise. Learn the art of quiet focus and connection. Talk with people some other time.
  • Choice: Let your horse take you for a walk. Just go along with him, give him his head. Spoiler: he wants to graze.
  • Touch: Communicate peace, lay a quiet still hand on his neck, flank, or hind, but leave his face alone. Learn to be supportive, not intrusive.
  • Praise: Be generous with kind words and exhales and laughter. Horses read our emotions; they like us happy. Then let the air rest again.
  • Autonomy: Give him his space. Let him hold his own self up. Stay at least 3 ft away from his head, use a long lead, and notice his eye soften.
  • Listen: Learn his language and acknowledge his calming signals. Be aware of the anxiety you create, work for his safety. Answer in his language.
  • Slow down: Give the horse the gift of time to answer the question and then the time he needs to process. Quit before you want to, stay hungry for more.
  • Rhythm: No stiff coyote stares, move with a smooth rhythm while leading or riding or swaying in the breeze in the pasture. Movement is release.
  • Most of all, breathe as a cue. Trust that an exhale is more eloquent and effective than any training aid possible. Watch your horse agree.

Please, know that you have all you need; that you are more than enough for your horse. Horses always require some soul-searching honesty, but then begin the nuanced work of becoming your horse’s partner. You can be his oasis of sanity. You can be the treat.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

38 thoughts on “A List of Inedible Treats for Your Horse”

  1. Thank you for this Anna. Isn’t it so true that we always want to give something (especially as women) and probably mostly to get something in return..even though we declare steadfastly that we don’t expect anything?
    I don’t think men wreck their brains as much about this as we women do. Most men that I know will go Christmas shopping on Christmas eve whereas many women start thinking about the joys of gift-giving on Boxing day.
    We have to read self-help books by the likes of Brené Brown in order to believe that we are enough..not just for our horses but in general.
    Lots of food for thought- no pun intended. Horses are so amazing in helping us with our shortcomings. If we let it happen..
    Thank you Anna for the gentle reminder.

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  2. As this week seems to have held many conversations with humans about body image and healthy fuel, and a spike of outdoor entertaining to bolster my human socially distant contact before winter calls us fully indoors that has me sharing meals replete with dessert, I’m reminded to rekindle my list of nonfood treats for me and my friends too. For the peace and safety I can share with my horse, I can also share with my humans – and that experience on my patio can be such a respite; lemon butter bars truly optional.

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  3. Well, now. This is the best argument I have ever heard for abandoning edible treats. As a member of the Mobile Vending Machine Coalition for Equines, I resolve to reject anxiety and be my horses’ treat. Will copy-and-paste your list to my forehead!

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  4. Brilliant. I offered a carrot yesterday to my new horse. She liked it. I bought a bag. I’ll be making carrot soup instead. However, I am happy to be able to say that I have been doing most on your list. Except the head part but I am very careful. It’s just that soft cheek is so lovely to quietly stroke. She drops her head, relaxes that mouth and we breath. Excellent point about lick and chew, etc. The goal should be that they don’t have to. Thanks, as always, for the brilliance. We are enough. Just as they, exactly as they are, should be enough for us.

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  5. Thank you for putting this all down in a nice inedible list. Some of us swim in the nebulous, and while I admit I enjoy that pond, (So many possibilities!) a little creative organization can be a real treat.

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  6. I enjoy all your musings, but this one is especially timely. Just yesterday afternoon I went into the pasture to fetch my horse. We always spend a few moments re-connecting, hanging out, giving him scratches before heading back to the barn. One of his herd mates came over to say hello, so I gave him a scratch as well. It had been a cool, fall day with rain on and off. But at this particular moment, the sun came out. The herdmate started to doze. My horse stepped a bit sideways to be closer to me; I scratched his back, he nibbled on the other horse. And then all three of us just stood there, still, relaxed, soaking up the sun. It was a particularly lovely, peaceful moment that made me grin hugely and just enjoy the stillness, and the honour of the horses choosing to stay with me. I truly did not want it to end. I am used to my guy just chilling with me, but it was quite special that the other horse had decided to join us this day. When we eventually went to the arena and worked on our groundwork, it was an especially lovely time, and it was obvious he was giving a good effort to do as asked. All together a wonderful time spent with my pony. (But at the end of it when he went back into his pasture, he did get his usual “thanks for your time, see you tomorrow” apple.) 🙂

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  7. I was visiting my sister, and her son came to visit. It was a short visit, and he asked me if I wanted to go see his girlfriend’s horses. Duh. So I left with him and he took me to a field where we saw half a dozen horses. One was a cremello and I had never seen one. We stood at one end of the field and he told me a bit about the horses and I could tell he knew them. Brownie point. He told me that they wouldn’t be coming over to visit us as they were shy. Well, it didn’t take long before curiosity got the best of them. One or two at a time approached us. We just kept visiting, except my nephew kept commenting that he was amazed they were approaching us. One smelled my arm, all came within 5 feet, just checking me out. Eventually I was scratching a neck or a shoulder and there were sighs. It was bliss. When we left, he commented that he hadn’t seen them approach strangers like that before. As I read this, I remembered the event and that it had never occurred to me that any of them were looking for a treat. They were just interested in the new person and it was sweet. Shared tranquility.

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  8. I have found that giving treats distracts from conversations with my horses. Your writing further clarifies my thoughts, so thanks, Anna. We do enjoy a daily Feet & Treat, when I give them each a low-carb horse cookie after I pick their hooves. It’s fun for all of us.

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  9. This was so eloquent and, well, revolutionary, for me. I continually fall back into the treat habit, which really highlights my own lack of confidence as an interesting conversationalist. But I know I can be one, if I simply think of us as dance partners. Thank you, Anna. This came at a perfect time.

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  10. I loved reading this inedible treat. I feel so relaxed and peaceful.

    I teach the Argentine tango, and your introductory list of inedible treats struck me as also perfect advice for a dance couple, both partners. (Save for where you can put that “quiet still hand.” 🙂

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  11. Our barn has a Hard Rule of no feeding treats in the pasture because group turnout + one owner with treats = riot.

    I’ve never been one to feed treats at all, ever. But we got a gelding 2 years ago who is a fantastic beggar. And – gasp- I fed him a cookie to drop his giant head and let me bridle him, and as a reward for standing at the mounting block.

    I feel vaguely fail-ey for using treats in this way after my whole training life of thinking that was something ‘owners do’.

    But for this horse it stopped a major argument in its tracks right when we were forming a relationship, and we are having fun rather than starting every outing with a fight.

    I still believe in no treats in the pasture because RIOT but I now think there are some times when it might work.

    All this assumes constant access to forage so the horses in question aren’t in ulcerative pain. That should be the lowest bar…

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  12. Anna You have just given me my new mantra for my relationship with my mare “Be the treat”. Love it! Thank you again for your wonderful, wise words,

    Reply

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