In her new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding: A How-to for You and Your Horse, horse trainer and master clinician Julie Goodnight refers to a question she answered for a reader on her website about the issue of hand-feeding a horse treats:
Question: Why shouldn’t I give my horse hand-fed treats?
Ground manners are critical in a horse of any age, for they indicate the horse’s respect for its handler. Many very capable riders have difficulties with rudeness from the horse on the ground. Sometimes this lack of respect and lack of recognition of you as the herd leader in your herd of two, is manifested by the horse spooking at every little thing.
Hand feeding treats to your horse is the quickest way I know to cause the horse to disrespect your space. Horses are only capable of horse behavior and the order of the herd is linear, each individual of the herd is either subordinate to or dominates every other individual.
Horses establish dominance in the herd by controlling the space (movement and actions) of the subordinate members and the resources of the herd (food and water). In your herd of two, how do you fit into the linear herd hierarchy?
Set fundamental ground rules with every horse you deal with, it should be the number one commandment. Thou shall not ever move into my space. If you must give your horse treats, make him move out of your space or back up, look away or otherwise retreat from you before he gets the treat.
To learn more about top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight, download our FREE guide—Julie Goodnight’s Tips for Riding a Horse: How to Ride a Horse at the Canter.
To improve your horse’s ground manners and respect, just treat your horse like a horse, it’s what he knows best. If you want to be in charge, you must control his space. Always. Whether at the hitching rail, tacking up, leading or feeding, you must always control the horse’s space and every move that he makes by communicating with your body language. You can work on these issues in the round pen, on a lead line or at liberty.
In the round pen you will learn to drive the horse away from you, control the speed of his feet and the direction of his turns. This is not easy if you are not used to using body language to communicate and can be hazardous if your horse is opposed to you becoming the herd leader.
At halter, work on smooth transitions from walk to trot to halt. Practice turnarounds, always turning the horse away from you, so he is moving out of your space. Practice backing the horse up and disengaging his hindquarters. Remember to cue with your body language. Show confidence and leadership with your eyes by looking where you want to go. Keep your hands and forearms well out in front of you so that your horse can use them as a guideline.
Time spent doing groundwork will never be wasted. Pay your dues on the ground and you’ll open new lines of trust, respect and communication with your horse.