If you give a horse a cookie…

Many riding instructors and horse clubs will tell you NEVER to hand feed treats to a horse. This will spoil the horse and teach him bad manners by encouraging him to be pushy, rude and to beg for treats. Even worse, you’ll encourage your horse to nip and bite.

At least, that was what I learned growing up. But is this true? Or is it just an old wive’s tale? Although most horse people have a definite opinion on this subject, there has been no quantitative research to see if hand feeding horses or training with treats leads to unwanted behaviors. Until now.

Researchers Jo Hockenhull (of the University of Chester) and Emma Creighton (of Newcastle University) collected data from over a thousand horse owners in the UK regarding their horse management, training and feeding practices.

Specifically, they asked horse owners how often their horses engaged in the following five oral investigative behaviors:

  1. Horse licks at a person’s hands
  2. Horse nips at a person’s hands
  3. Horse gently searches a person’s clothes
  4. Horse roughly searches a person’s clothes
  5. Horse bites at clothing

They also asked owners how often they fed their horses tit-bits by hand. As well, survey questions on training practices determined how often, if ever, owners used clicker training.

So, will feeding treats cause your horse to bite or nip?

Fifty-eight percent of respondents fed their horses by hand sometimes and 33% reported that they did this often. The researchers found that for horses fed by hand, owners were more likely to report that the horse licked hands or searched clothing for food. However, there was no association between how often a horse was hand fed and nipping behavior or biting at clothes.

The researchers also investigated the relationship between clicker training and the five behaviors listed above. Eleven percent of respondents used clicker training occasionally and 3% used it often. Interestingly, they found no relationship between clicker training and any of the five food searching behaviors.

What this means for horse owners and trainers

Horse owners are discouraged from hand feeding treats because this will supposedly encourage nipping or biting. However, this study found no association between hand feeding and nipping or biting. Also, many people are opposed to clicker training because they claim it will encourage all five of the behaviors listed above. However, the study found absolutely no evidence for this claim.

Most owners in the survey reported only hand feeding their horses sometimes and also commonly reported some of the gentler unwanted behaviors (licking hands, searching clothes). The authors speculate that feeding treats occasionally could encourage these behaviors if owners are accidentally rewarding these behaviors. An irregular pattern of treats makes it harder for the horse to predict when the next one is coming and encourages the horse to be looking or searching for treats.

Also, the researchers found no association between clicker training and these unwanted behaviors. (What is clicker training?) As many clicker trainers claim, clicker training could even decrease biting and nipping and aid in teaching horses how to act politely around food.

Here are several of the reasons the researchers suggest for the lack of association between clicker training and unwanted behavior:

  • Most clicker training programs give specific suggestions for how to avoid or stop these behaviors.
  • Clicker trainers may understand better how to avoid accidentally reinforcing these behaviors.
  • Using food rewards in a structured way teaches the horse to discriminate when food will be available.
  • Using food rewards in a structured program teaches the horse guidelines concerning what is required to earn a food treat.

And some more thoughts…

Food in and of itself does not cause a horse to behave poorly. However, poor or inconsistent training practices can and will encourage many of these unwanted behaviors. Most clicker training programs use food rewards in a very structured way. Food is predictable–the horse knows exactly when and where the treat will appear. The horse learns rules about when food will appear and manners about how to take food.

Clicker training is becomes much more prevalent for horse owners. Twenty years ago, clicker training was almost non existent in the horse world. Now, for the population surveyed for this study, 14% of owners reported using clicker training sometimes or often. As clicker training and training with treats becomes more widespread, it is important that horse owners are educated about how to use food effectively and how to reduce or eliminate unwanted food seeking behaviors.

These behaviors can be eliminated by teaching the horse from the beginning exactly how you want him to behave around food. Clicker trainers often begin with the horse behind a stall or fence, since many horses have not been taught self control and manners around food. (This is called training with “protected contact.”) Early foundation lessons also usually emphasize backing up, standing quietly and moving out of a person’s space.

Once the horse understands the rules of game, treats and positive reinforcement become a VERY powerful tool for teaching new behavior. For example, here’s a horse standing quietly at liberty for a bath. You wouldn’t know it from how quiet and calm he is, but this is only the third time this horse has had a bath.

More research and controlled studies should be done to further investigate the positive and negative effects of different training practices. However, this study is strong support for what clicker trainers have been saying all along–that positive reinforcement training can create happy, polite, respectful horses.

If you are interested in more information about clicker training, please check out the resource section of my blog.

Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Unwanted oral investigative behaviour in horses: A note on the relationship between mugging behaviour, hand-feeding titbits and clicker training, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 25 September 2010, ISSN 0168-1591, DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.08.008.

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