We all love our horses and we want them to love us back. We devote our time and our energy, we care for them, we consider them a part of our family. As horse lovers and as human beings it is only natural for us to want to nurture our equine companions. Unfortunately, despite our good intentions we often do them more harm than good when we humanize their needs. We want to believe our horses want and need the same things we do and that in return for our love, they love us, trust us, prefer us and would never hurt us. Many people give treats to horses as a way of demonstrating affection sometimes believing that the horse will "like" them more. Believe me when I tell you that when your horse begins to treat you as his human vending machine the last thing he is trying to show you is affection.
When your horse mugs your pocket or begs for treats he is invading your space and demanding food. By giving up either your resources or space, you are telling your horse that he is in control. I read a great quote on this subject as it relates to self discipline. The quote is "You cannot teach what you do not have". When you fail to take leadership role, the horse takes over, which often leads to spoiled and aggressive behaviors from the horse. You are creating a dangerous and unpleasant animal with no regard for you or anyone else it encounters.
Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this post, understand that I am not implying you should never treat your horses. I do give my horses treats. Depending on the horse and situation, feeding treats can be harmless and fun. In fact I have several horses that I call my "treat horses" because I know that when children come and ask to feed them carrots they will gently lower their heads and respectfully accept. I also use treats when doing carrot stretches with my horses.
Treats can be a useful way to easily get what your after without a lot of fuss. However, I DO NOT greet my horses with hand fed treats. I DO NOT try to reward a horses bad behavior or calm a horse with treats. I DO NOT bribe my horses on to trailers with treats. There is a difference between bribery and reward. If you have to give your horse grain, carrots, etc. to get him to step in the trailer that's bribery. But, if you give your horse the grain after they are in the trailer and standing quietly that's a reward. It may seem like a subtle difference, but the behavior must come before the reward.
Each horse is an individual and they all will respond differently. If your horse is like one of my "kid treat horses" you may never have an issue with your horse becoming aggressive or ill mannered. However if you begin to see signs of spoiling (chasing you or others in the field, mugging your pockets, nipping at your hands or clothes, dancing in the cross ties, or pawing each time you arrive) It is time to practice restraint. Give your horse all the treats you want in his BUCKET. Let him watch you put them there if you are worried that he wont know they are from you.
The bottom line is a good relationship with your horse has very little to do with spoiling them. In fact it has little to do with love either, at least not the way we as humans equate love. What a good relationship is based on is mutual respect. If you love your horse, then respect your horse enough to do what is in his best interest. This is far more important than fulfilling your own fantasy of a human like bond that horses neither understand or appreciate. If you want to show your horse how much you care, make sure he has a clean water bucket, groom him today even if he is only going to get dirty again, exercise him, put an apple with his dinner if it pleases you. At the end of the day what your horse truly comprehends and appreciates is his dependence upon you. He can depend on the fact that he will be safe, warm, fed and treated kindly by the partner at his side.
*** Read this article by Dr. Jessica Jahiel highlighting a letter written by one of her readers entitled "Dear friend of my horse" This can be a tricky subject at many boarding barns. I think printing out this letter and hanging it on your bulletin board might give your unwelcome treaters a little perspective w/out stepping on too many toes:)