What is your opinion about hand feeding treats to horses? Jac Review Week

“Hi Stacy,  In the Jac videos- Episode 9-you talked about the youthful stallion drive toward dominance and biting.  What is your opinion about hand feeding treats to horses?  I’ve seen other opinions stating that one should never hand feed because it puts us submissive to the horses while others disagree.  I’ve got 9 horses whose ages range from 24 to yearlings.  Two of my three yearlings like to try to get in my bubble to get at the treats, so I’m working on this personal space issue.  Interestingly, the two are stallions while the third more respectful youngster is a mare.  What’s your opinion on treat feeding?  (PS  The other six in the herd take treats respectfully, although we have a special needs gelding who suffered brain damage due to an accident before we got him so care is needed feeding him because he’s simply uncoordinated, even with his mouth!)”-Joan J.

I am not opposed to feeding treats to horses but I do set rules and conditions. Over the years I have made some observations that I turned into general rules that I use with my horses.

#1- You can’t buy love…so don’t try to with treats.

I want my horses to engage with me, respect me and, yes, even love me but I don’t use treats to get this behavior. In fact, I don’t use treats at all until the horse is already respecting me. As a general rule I don’t give treats to a horse until they are pretty well trained both on the ground and under saddle. The age of the horse really isn’t the key here, but rather the amount of training time. Personally, it is rare for me to feed treats to a horse that I have had in training for less than a year. I make exceptions to this occasionally based on the horses previous experience and individual personality but I would rather delay giving treats than start too early.

#2- Treats can be a distraction and get in the way of the relationshipRoxy loved peppermints

One reason I wait to give treats is because it is possible for horses to become ‘all about the treats.’ If the horse becomes so focused on ‘do I get a treat, now? now? now?’ then it is a good sign that the treat is becoming a distraction. If relationship is what you are trying to build then you need to ask yourself if the horse is thinking about you…or the treat. If the answer is the treat then the relationship will suffer. Have you ever seen a child who was given more and more toys? Or expected a toy every time a parent returned home? The giver may have generated interest in the child through buying stuff…but usually with a cost to the relationship.

#3- The horses that demand treats…don’t get them.

If a horse is searching the human for treats then it is likely that treat giving has gone too far. Too many horses cross the line from curious to demanding. This is usually the stage where biting begins to occur. Not all horses that are given treats progress to this stage but some do. Other horses can eat treats for years and never become pushy or demanding while others seem to become a problem after a short time. This is because the issue isn’t really the treat…it is the individual nature of each horse coming out. The nature of the horse combined with the leadership of the handler is TESTED when treats are given.

#4-Treats can be used for a reward if respect is gained and not lost.

There are horses out there that benefit greatly from receiving treats. Ironically these horses often don’t want treats. I am specifically talking about horses that have been trained with methods that discourage the horse from expressing themselves. I wrote an entire article about retraining these ‘robotic’ horses (click here) but I didn’t go into detail about using treats. I use treats with these horses specifically because it breaks the structure of the way they have been handled by humans in the past. The treats give these horses the hope that humans may have more to offer them than work alone. In essence the treat is used to enhance the mood…a bit like the difference between a candlelight dinner vs florescent lighting.

When Roxy was on the Ellen show they bought her a bucket full of these treats...she was one happy pony! Just after the show went off air she dumped the entire bucket on the floor in the studio to the amusement of the entire audience:)

When Roxy was on the Ellen show they bought her a bucket full of these treats…she was one happy pony! Just after the show went off air she dumped the entire bucket on the floor in the studio to the amusement of the entire audience:)

If I had to sum up my strongest reason for using treats it would be that it can be fun for both the horse and the rider. I fed Roxy countless treats while hanging out or waiting around for our name to be called to show. I didn’t give her any treats early in training. I never used them directly as a reward for a specific maneuver; for example I DID NOT ask her to spin and then give her a treat. I DID use them as we were waiting to show, sometimes for an hour, to keep ourselves entertained. We had both worked hard and then we both enjoyed a peppermint while waiting.

To sum it all up and give you the short answer: I do feed treats to horses…but only if they are respectful.


  1. […] And Stacy Westfall……… What is your opinion about hand feeding treats to horses? Jac Review Week | Stacy Westfall Horseblog […]

  2. Curtis Clark on December 23, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    My gelding was one of those robotic horses, totally shut down to people (and when he wasn’t sure what was being asked of him under saddle, he would go fast, which evidently was the right answer at some point). I basically trained him to take treats. Carrots were first, then licorice, apples (although he only seems to like Gala and Fuji, and only sometimes) and peppermints. I was relieved that he was enthusiastic about fig newtons, which I use to give him his arthritis medicine. I realized how far he had come with treats when he reached around when I wasn’t looking and bit off the end of a carrot in my back pocket. If my wife’s mare had done that, I would get in her face, but I just told him what a smart boy he was.

  3. Jim Fodor on September 11, 2014 at 8:35 am

    SORRY FOLKS ….. NO HAND FED TREATS !!! When you are working with 10 or 12 different horses and different people in the barn ( some good horse people some new ), there are many bad things can happen. If you want to give a treat, put it in their feed bucket.

  4. Kathleen E. on September 11, 2014 at 12:24 am

    I can’t say I am a fan of treats at all. I have two horses that become pushy for the treats and crowd my space. One, I’ve actually only fed her treats a couple times but as soon as they come out that’s all she focuses on. On the other hand my third horse could care less about getting a treat and ignores them unless I offer it to him.

  5. Alex Sykes on September 10, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    I’m the opposite. I usually give treats only early in training. a treat can be used to lead a horse into a specific behavior but once the behavior is learned then I use affection as the reward for the right behavior instead of the treat. The treat is a shortcut. For example, If a horse I’ve just started working with trots across the pasture and puts his head in the halter, he gets a treat because he did something special. After he gets the idea that when he sees me he should trot over and put his head in the bridle, the treat stops and I replace it with “good boy” and a rub or scratch of his favorite spot. My horses know they have to do something special to get a treat. On the other hand, I don’t count carrots as a treat. Here in the desert, carrots are a useful way to get some water into a horse that is working. I often take a carrot break on the trail, during training etc to get some moisture into them and allow them to relax for a moment. Even then, the first rule of taking a break applies… always stop on a win.

  6. firnhyde on September 10, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    Great article, and I agree strongly with the first rule! Of course I want my horse to run up to me whinnying and follow me around, but if he does it because he gets a carrot out of it, it’s not love. It’s bribery. I am guilty of routinely giving treats to my own horses, usually just after I take off the bridle after work, and they all expect it but know not to be jerks about it.
    As a rule I don’t routinely feed treats to client horses. I know it spoils them a little. I also don’t use treats as a reward except with a horse that is hard to catch. It’s still bribery, but it beats running around a paddock for two hours!

  7. Janette on September 10, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Another awesome, generous post.

    I find an effective horse or dog trainer will be effective with or without treats. “A good tradesman never blames his tools”.

  8. Carrie on September 10, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    We have 4 geldings who love their treats! They have manners because they get chastised when they are rude. They know how to act or it is no yummies,no love and a stern attitude from us. When it is time to rope,trail ride,gymkhana, or take care of their rider they do their jobs well. Maybe it is security that helps to create the respect that allows for treats.

  9. mychon on September 10, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    I agree completely. I also think the key to treats becoming a problem is timing and regularity. I have always given and never had a problem with giving occasional treats. But I give them randomly and not too often. I recently bought a large bag of carrots and in an effort to feed them all before spoiling were giving them very regularly and often and I see a difference in behavior in many of my horses. They have started looking for and expecting and getting grabby when the carrots are given. So I’m going back to the small bags. Before my horses never knew when to expect the carrots and we’re just pleasantly surprised and manner full when treated. When I ran out they might go weeks without. So I think it’s all about timing and expectation. It should never be always given after a certain activity. It’s a special treat not ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

  10. Ruth on September 10, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    I give treats….carrots, celery ends, romaine lettuce stalks, watermelon & pepper mints (rarely since I want them to be special) the vet uses peppermint as a reward after shots or blood draws. Never over the rails….always have them step back and lower their heads. Preventing them from charging unsuspecting visitors.

  11. Julie on September 10, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    I personally do not hand feed any youngsters or stallions/colts as I think it can lead to nipping and pushy behavior. After some ground rules are established I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve had a few nice horses that became more pushy by hand feeding and so their treats go in the feed tub. I will sometimes just go up to my horses in the pasture and give them a treat so they don’t always think I’m there to catch them. Otherwise, the goodies come out AFTER a ride; before they are turned loose. I don’t ever give treats to horses that aren’t mine, not just because their owners might not like it but also I don’t want to be bombarded by everyone in the pasture. Only my horses, and only for certain reasons. I have a yearling colt and his goodies go in the tub after a training session (ground work) After I am very confident he understands proper manners I will feed him by hand (he is being gelded soon otherwise not) I basically said a long-winded version of what Brenda Casteel said. 🙂

  12. Ginny Chase Elder on September 10, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Check out some of the sites on Positive reinforcement….the first thing to teach is “the rules of food” behavior to the horse ( ha ha and human…horses tend to pick it up faster than the trainer!)
    PR is an excellent adjunct to negative reinforecement and highly motivational in horses. It helps horses “learn how to learn” and think….it’s fun and effective. It’s all part of the bigger picture of learning theory.

  13. johanna on September 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    awesome post–well said
    i use the same thinking in dog training, and my experiences are the same.

  14. Brenda Casteel on September 10, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Stacy hit the nail on the head.Your horse must respect you first. When I ride my 20 year old she doesnt get a treat until we are finished rideing. I give treats for a job well done. I never have trouble catching my horse, because she thinks I have a treat. Sometimes I do sometimes I dont

  15. maxine F on September 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    I brought around a robotic horse using treats. At first she wouldn’t take them, now she is ever so respectful and gentle and we have a very good relationship.

  16. Connie on September 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Not a fan of treats, it tends to create an expectation which can result in a pushy horse. Once in a while is ok but not often.

  17. Tanya on September 10, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I made the mistake of feeding my horse treats ever since she was born (she is 5 now), and she is very motivated by treats, sometimes she is “demanding” and pushy like you mention. My mom and the people at the barn feed her treats very often too.
    I have tried clicker training with groundwork and tricks, which makes her very attentive, she really wants to work for me when she gets something for it. I feel like she’s not motivated enough by release of pressure, pauses and scratching etc.
    In general she is an Employee 2 or 3, with treats she becomes an Employee 1, but of course I’d like that she would work for ME and not the treats. But then again, I can’t help but think it’s only fair that she gets something when she’s working.

    Do you think I should stop feeding her treats completely? I’m afraid she will become even more lazy and unwilling because she doesn’t really respond to pressure.

  18. Nikki Schleppe on September 10, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    I agree, it really is dependant on the horse, training, and relationship. Only once have I ever used treats to train, an older mare with bad habits couldn’t be tied up without pulling back. Smart girl but worked hard with no relationship and obviously just pushed around by previous owners. I spent about 10 minutes teaching her a verbal and physical command to stand using carrots as a reward, I then tired her up and used the commands with the reward. She never pulled back again. However I would not use this technique again unless I came across another horse with her character traits. I just finished teaching another older mare not to pull back with a completely different method, she was mistreated and obviously hit and yanked on when she pulled back exacerbating the problem so treats would not have worked. In the end its all about respect, my young gelding doesn’t get treats unless they are offered and he stands 3ft back-he’s far too pushy. My old gelding is a rescue and been through a lot, he gets a treat only after he’s been good. Hes a good guy but can be a complete goof. Treats are treats, not necessary for a healthy diet but nice once in a while.

  19. katzarr on September 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    It depends Totally on the individual “horse”; some horses will have the tendency to bit or nip if they think you have treats.; I have 15 head, the majority of them, I put treats in their feed bowl, some are ok with feeding treats by “hand”, this issue just depends on the individual horses actions/attitude; so you just have to play it by “ear”,; each horse is an INDIVIDUAL, just like “people”… you can NOT treat all the same.. each one takes time to get to “know”…. Just be ready for anything, when it comes to Horses, or People;; God Bless them all.. <3

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