Q: I manage a small boarding and training barn. In recent years our clientele has become mostly comprised of kids whose families are pretty new to owning or even being around ponies and horses. On the one hand these folks have been a lot of fun and very satisfying to work with, but on the other hand I feel especially responsible for and concerned about their safety in ordinary horse handling. In this regard I have been fretting more and more about the whole deal of hand-feeding treats. I am old-school and prefer to never hand-feed treats to horses, particularly ponies. But lately I've more or less had to give up trying to convince clients of that. The current trend seems to be a belief that a horse or pony without treats is unloved.

Hand-feeding treats creates the nuisance of horses and ponies constantly nudging and nipping at people. It's bad enough for our skilled staff to deal with it, but my greatest concern is that somebody who is not able to deal with that safely, or even one of the barn girls caught off guard, is going to get hurt. I am especially nervous about the kids who like to hug and kiss, so are right there face-to-face with a nippy pony. Or, as is usually the case, when a pony or horse gets nippy for treats, the unskilled treat-givers often react in ways that create a head-shy, anxious horse. What are your comments? Any ideas on how to convince people that treats are not the best way to show affection?

via email

A: I certainly agree that unskilled hand-feeding of horses can very quickly create a huge safety concern, and not just with kids. This issue is not much different from so many things skilled horse handlers do every day and take for granted, but then can be shocked to find that inexperienced folks are unfamiliar with potential safety concerns and can easily and unknowingly put themselves at high risk of injury.

You might wish to consider a method I have found relatively effective for teaching how to hand-feed treats more safely. Usually, this method avoids encouraging nudging and nipping behaviors. It involves delivering the treat in a very specific manner: Stand at the shoulder ¬facing the same direction as the horse, reach under the neck, and offer the treat when the horse's muzzle is just off center to the opposite side.

This also is a great example of counter-conditioning: training or substituting a desirable behavior that is incompatible with an undesirable one. The horse cannot nudge or nip at you and instead turns and holds his head slightly away from you. You can continue by shaping the horse to hold that position quietly for longer and longer, just as a dog is trained to sit-stay. You can also add in the verbal prompt to let the pony know it is treat time (e.g., "Treat!"). Another instruction to stress to your clients is that if the pony gets in any way food aggressive--pushy or anxious for a treat--to just back off, say nothing, and walk away calmly if possible. Simply ignoring that undesirable behavior should help extinguish it more rapidly.

I learned the specific method of reaching under the neck with the treat from "On Target" trainer Shawna Karrasch, who effectively uses food tidbits to clicker- and target-train horses. Here at the New Bolton Center we use hand-fed treats in the hospital to avoid or overcome patients' aversions to repeated mildly uncomfortable treatments such as injections, eye treatments, or oral medications. And even with skilled horse handlers, an obvious side effect of giving treats any old way is that some patients become so happy to see us for treats that it becomes bothersome to staff.

I have also taught the above treat-feeding method to a fair number of kids and ponies. It has been relatively easy for handlers, even those new to horse handling, to learn and use. In a situation such as yours it might be an acceptable compromise compared to never hand-feeding treats. It also helps kids and people new to horses learn some of the universal principles of behavior modification--getting them thinking about stimulus response relationships and how they shape behavior, how our behavior affects an animal's behavior, the importance of good timing, and how to avoid inadvertent training of an undesirable behavior.

Before recommending this method, my standard suggestion previously was to only feed treats from a particular feed pan and to place that pan on the ground. When the pan was not available, he received no treats. This seemed to reduce the likelihood that a pony would become nippy in general and aim his treat-seeking nudginess toward the upper body and face of the child. In most cases it limited the amount of treats the pony received simply by being less convenient for the handler (the pan had to be present), which was both good and problematic. It cut down on the treats, but handlers had more of a tendency to "break the rules." And, as you likely know, ponies are brilliant at simple associative learning.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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