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Don’t Feed Treats Without Permission

16 August 2011 No Comment

Don’t Feed Treats Without Permission
By Dr. Jessica Jahiel

A boarder stopped me one afternoon to tell me how poorly-mannered my horse is. She said that he’s pushy, demanding, and nipped at her for a treat. As my horse is clicker-trained, well-mannered, and this boarder has nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the barn, I was surprised, but I listened and told her I’d keep an eye out for it.

To my stunned disbelief, not five minutes later, she walked up to my horse and fed him a handful of “Altoids” mints over his door, saying to me, “I just love them (horses, that is) all so much!” I asked her politely not to feed my horse, explained that he colics easily, told her about his training, and left it at that. However, she continues to give him treats when I’m not there.

Am I crazy because I don’t want her to feed my horse treats? Here are my reasons:

First of all, my horse belongs to me. He is a beloved friend, a competition partner, and, not least of all, a substantial financial investment. Please, Friend of My Horse, respect my pet, respect my property.

Secondly, the boarder does not know my horse’s health history. Does he have allergies? (yes) Is he on medication? (yes) Does he colic easily? (yes) Are there certain things he can’t have? (yes) Are there foods I simply do not want him to eat? (yes) I must carefully regulate my horse’s care and feeding to keep him healthy, safe, and sound. The vet is already our too-often guest. Please, Friend of My Horse, you could “kill” him with your loving treat.

Friend, I understand you think feeding my horse a treat is a nice thing to do. But it isn’t. Because my nicely-mannered horse has learned that people passing by might give him treats, he has begun to badger, bother, and nip at them. It may take a very long time of NOT receiving treats for him to change his behavior. So, please, Friend of My Horse, respect his noble heart and quick mind – don’t spoil him or abase his training.

And please, oh please, Friend of My Horse, if you choose to feed your own, please be careful with your trash. The plastic carrot bag and twist tie I found in my horse’s stall can mean death or injury to him or any horse who swallows it. Please, friend, if you love my horse, our horses, as much as you say you do, please help me keep them safe, healthy, and happy for as many full years as they are given on this earth.

Friend of My Horse, I believe in your good heart and generous hand. I know you want to do right. So, please, come with me; help me love our horses as we should, with respect and dignity for them and ourselves alike.

Thank you.
A Friend of YOUR Horse

Dear Elizabeth!

Hi Vanessa!
Your letter says it all, and should be on the bulletin board at every barn.

This sign should probably also be in every barn:

DO NOT FEED HORSES TREATS WITHOUT PERMISSION (from the owner, not from the horse)!

These days, there are a lot of people who are new to horses and barns, and don’t understand why they need to have good manners – much less what the reasons are behind the manners.

Feeding horses treats is just fine – if the horses are yours. It’s also fine if you have said to another horse’s owner “I’ve fed Trigger his treats and I have a carrot left, can Stormy have it?”, at which point Stormy’s owner may say “Sure, he’ll love it,” or “Yes, thanks, but put it in his manger, don’t hand-feed him”, or “No, thanks anyway, but he’s on a special diet”. Some horses ARE on special diets.

Example: Horses with heaves (COPD) are often unable to eat even a single mouthful of hay without coughing – sometimes for hours. In one case, such a horse was carefully isolated (at extra expense) to a permanent paddock and shed, so that it would not be exposed to hay, and its owner noticed that it was coughing whenever she came out in the morning. The vet came out several times and ran a series of costly tests, the horse’s diet was changed twice, but the coughing persisted – until the horse’s owner came out early enough to catch another boarder giving the horse some hay through the fence. Did she know that the horse wasn’t to have hay? Yes – of course – and there was a sign posted, furthermore, but she “loved horses” and thought that it was just “cruel” to keep the horse away from hay.

Example: A very well-managed diabetic horse had its feed measured and weighed precisely, and was not allowed so much as a baby carrot or wisp of grass, because it would have been enough to tip his precarious internal balance. His owner loved him dearly and fed him small amounts of special home-made treats that were safe for a diabetic horse: sugarless Jell-O Jigglers. Her parents had to build a small stable for him so that he could live at home, because at the boarding stable, there were boarders who insisted on feeding him (and the other horses) treats – which, in his case, could have been fatal.

Example (non-horse): And then there was the very kind youngster who found a box of chocolates in the barn lounge, and decided to share it with the barn dog. End of chocolates – also end of dog.

Quite apart from the fact that feeding horses treats can create nippy horses and nipped fingers, and quite apart from the possible more serious health hazards to horses, there’s a basic politeness issue here. “May I give your horse/dog/child a treat?” is not a complicated question, and it’s one that a polite person will ask. Many people seem to think nothing of offering treats to horses without asking permission, but would be utterly horrified if they came back to their car just in time to see someone feeding their child or dog something.

The boarder who is feeding your horse treats probably has no idea that she is doing something dangerous or rude. She probably genuinely adores horses and wants all the horses at the barn to like her – she just doesn’t know very much about horses or barn etiquette. YET. If she’s willing to learn, she can learn, and become a good solid horse-owning citizen someday.

As problems go, this is not an uncommon one at boarding barns, and it doesn’t have to be serious as long as the offending person stops immediately and as long as the barn management makes it clear that this falls into the category of unacceptable behaviors. This sort of behavior can create nasty situations in terms of health and liability.

Scenario: A horse develops a surgical colic, and the surgeon comes out of the operating room and says “Look what we found – a plastic bag and twist tie!” Chances are very good that at this point, the horse’s owner will feel a strong desire to allow the bag’s owner to share the fun of paying several thousand dollars’ worth of vet bills.

Scenario: A horse nips someone whose finger is in the way of the cookie or carrot or mint, and the someone goes to the hospital for a stitch or two or three. The insurance company pays for the emergency room visit and treatment, then comes after the owner of the horse to get its money back, and comes after the barn owners because the injury happened at their barn.

If the person who put the horse into the habit of grabbing at treats was did so without the horse-owner’s permission and against official barn rules and policy, the situation can get very complicated.

It’s not that difficult to ask, “May I?” – and if people, including other boarders, are truly well-meaning, it’s not difficult to TEACH them to ask “May I?” If people are new to the horse world and haven’t been presented with a set of barn rules to indicate which behaviors are and aren’t acceptable at the barn, they’ll make mistakes, but most of them will change their behavior when someone explains to them that other people’s horses are not to be fed treats, medicated, handled, bridled, saddled, or ridden without the owner’s express permission.

I hope the situation is resolved soon. Have you spoken with the barn owners or managers? If it’s a well-run facility, they’ll be horrified to know that someone is feeding treats to horses without the owner’s permission… and worse, after being told “Don’t do that.”

Sometimes, if you find yourself dealing with someone who was very badly brought up, the issue is a simple one of your politeness being perceived as weakness. Telling someone like this “Please don’t feed my horse treats” doesn’t convey “Do NOT feed my horse treats”, because the person hears “please” as a qualifier, as “you have a choice, you can decide”. With people like this, you may need to say, very slowly and clearly, “DO NOT EVER feed my horse treats”.

Good luck! It’s a very real problem, I know. Dogs and children can be taught not to accept food from strangers, but it’s just about impossible to get this idea across to a grazing animal, so we have to count on humans to behave well. Fortunately humans CAN learn.

To find out more about Dr. Jessica Jahiel, click here!

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