I did a private clinic not long ago and was told, “My horse is very sweet and does almost everything I ask, but he always seems to pin his ears when there is food around.”
She told me this before I even got out to her home to do the clinic. She wanted to just give me a heads up that “something was wrong”. She kept saying that she could feel a disconnect with her horse, even though he did almost everything she asked.
I asked her if she felt her horse was angry, frustrated, or had an attitude when he had his ears pinned and she said no, she felt he was acting normal and she just couldn’t figure out why his ears were pinned back around food.
She said she felt safe around him and it was just something weird.
So, I went out to her place to do the clinic and saw what she was talking about.
Here’s a picture of her horse…what do you think?
Looks like a horse with some major attitude problems, right?
But remember the owner said she didn’t feel threatened nor that her horse was mad or frustrated with her. Then I watched for a while to see their interactions together and what their “normal” was.
She was right, her horse did almost everything she asked, but he did it without any connection to her. He did it because it was what he had been taught to do.
I could see she cared deeply for her horse and loved everything about him. She took great care to keep him happy and healthy and showed so much love and warmth towards him.
So what was wrong?
The desire for connection all came from her side and the horse showed very little in return, he was just doing what he was told to be a good boy.
She was right though, her horse didn’t hate her and wasn’t angry at her.
However, he was trying to tell her something.
He was trying to tell her that he didn’t like how she was feeding him his treats.
He was trying to tell her to do it correctly. He’d done what she wanted and he wanted her to do something for him.
So, we changed the way she was giving him treats and his food and he changed his tune in a matter of hours.
By the time we got to the end of the 3 day clinic her horse had really started to open up and began a real relationship with her.
She was amazed how different he was and was thankful that he was now coming around to showing her the love that she had shown him.
I’ve included the lesson I taught her on how to give treats below.
Now I know what you may be thinking… “Duh, isn’t it kinda obvious how to give your horse a treat”.
Well, kinda and kinda not.
Yes, everyone who has been around horses for a while knows the kind of treats they like such as carrots, apples, peppermints, horse cookies, etc…
And yes, every one of those horse people also knows to hand a horse a treat with an open hand, palm up, so the horse doesn’t accidentally bite a finger.
But did you know that HOW you give your horse a treat can either make your horse more aggressive, or can make your horse more considerate and well mannered?
The LITTLE things we do, often have a disproportionally LARGE effect on our horse’s attitude.
If your body language is afraid, or timid, or too overpowering, or aggressive when you give your horse a treat, your horse is going to feel and see this and not trust you. He’s going to see the fear or intimidation in your body language and react accordingly.
You need to actually think deeper about your body language and how you present the treat because you are either giving your horse that treat or you are allowing your horse to take the treat from you. The difference might seem subtle but it makes a big difference to your horse.
I have seen just how you give a treat, change a horse’s personalities in minutes.
OK, so here’s the lesson:
Body language that shows your horse you are “GIVING”him a treat:
- You go to your horse, or meet him while he is coming to you, and you hand him a treat
- Your body is close, or at a close safe distance, from your horse to easily be handed the treat
- Your horse’s head is at a normal casual level, or slightly lower than his normal relaxed level, in order to eat the treat
- Your horse’s head is at a normal causal distance, or slightly back, from his neck and shoulders
- Your body language is relaxed and normal without having to reach your hand out too far
- Your body is not over reaching or unbalanced while handing your horse a treat
- You ask your horse to wait a second or two before you give him the treat and you give it to him if he’s being patient and considerate
Body language that shows your horse that you are allowing him to “TAKE” the treat from you:
- Your horse has to reach out, stretch his neck out to take the treat from your hand
- Your hand is outstretched where you have to bend over to reach your horse’s mouth
- Your horse moves to you, without you moving towards him, and takes the treat from you before you are ready to give it to him
- Your horse grabs the treats or bag of treats without your permission
- Your horse doesn’t wait for you to give him a treat and he pushes into you to get it
- Your horse flips his tail, pins his ears back, stomps the ground, and other body language to demand the treat and you let him take it from you
- Your horse’s head is high and then quickly comes down to take the treat and then his head goes high again
Simple, easy-to-follow instructions:
- Go to your horse relaxed and aware of your surroundings
- Make sure your horse wants you to come towards him and is aware of you bringing him a treat
- Get your horse’s attention and talk gently saying hello or saying his name
- Walk up to your horse’s front, or the side of his head and gently give him a treat
- Make sure that when you give him a treat that his head is in a relaxed position and he waits for you to give him the treat
- Make sure that his head goes down a bit or back a bit towards his neck to eat the treat in your hand, very slightly
- Watch his ears to make sure they are up or forward so he is enjoying this exchange and is happy you are near him
This should be a fun, happy, and relaxed interchange between the two of you. It’s that simple.
Noticing and doing these little changes can make big changes in your horse’s attitude with you around treats. Doing this correctly will also help his attitude with you around food too.
Watch the little things you do with your horse and how you do them. If he reacts “off” or you think something is weird or wrong, look at what you just did and HOW you just did it before your horse’s reaction.
This will not only help you learn what your horse is saying to you, but it will help him trust you and connect to you as your relationship progresses forward.
For those of you who already have my Beginning The Connection program, there is also a video of me demonstrating the above with my sweet, loving horse Jazz.
You’ll see how quickly he gets pushy and cops an attitude because I allow him to “take” the treat from me. But when I switch to instead “giving” him the treat, you see him change back to his normal, sweet self again in seconds.
It’s amazing what a difference it makes!
I hope you enjoyed today’s lesson and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the Comments below.
Thank you, very enlightening to know I have been doing most things correctly, naturally all of my 70 years. It’s never to late to learn something new.
Its very true for me when visiting my horses and a pony I’d call and watch as they walked towards me. I’d give them scratches, say how good they were and then give them a treat. Sometimes I went there just to watch them eat their hay and grain but there was a bond that I loved with them. Thank you for your topic and I will look forward on next Friday topic.
Brilliant advice. I think I’m doing it right. People who know my horse say he has developed better manners
I so enjoyed your post about how to give (and how not to give) treats to one’s horse. It was very interesting! And how neat that your student had observed her horse’s ears and how even neater that this led you to writing what you did. Bravo to your student and bravo to you. Thank you!
So lovely to see this information shown in a very down to earth manner .
All aiming at mutual respect and making each other feel safe and appreciated .
Thank you for sharing your ‘common ‘ sense approach. Spot on x
Good info. Thanks
My pony can get pushy when treats or food is about. So now I go to the field and when he comes over I offer the back of my hand as a hello. He answers by gently touching my hand with his nose at which point I will offer his treat from either hand. If he’s bolshy or doesn’t want to say hello that’s fine we continue without a treat. My hand can be high, low or to the side without him over stretching and it seems to work.
I love reading your insights. I’ve lost my nerve riding him but l have found this has now taken all pressure off us and we can have a much more relaxed ground work time together and all these little bits of advice and insights add up to give us a whole new view of horse ownership.