Feeding Horses By Hand: How, When, Why & What To Feed Them

If you talk to a random bunch of horse owners they’ll all have their opinions on whether hand feeding horses is a good idea or something to be avoided altogether. As somebody who’s always hand fed horses, I wondered whether or not it was really a good idea and was surprised by what I learned.

How do you feed a horse by hand? When feeding a horse by hand it’s important to hold your palm flat and to keep your fingers together. You should then put the treat (or whatever you’re feeding) on your hand and place it just beneath the horse’s head, allowing them to lower their head towards you instead.

Should you feed horses by hand?

Whether or not you should feed your horse by hand is open to debate, some people insist you should never feed a horse anything by hand while others say it’s fine to do it every day. Then of course there are those that say it’s okay to feed a horse from your hand now and then.

With all of these different opinions, it can be difficult to know what’s correct and what isn’t but the honest answer is that it depends. I know that may seem like I’m avoiding answering the question but there are so many different variables, such as the personality of the horse, how much concentrate they have, if it’s a treat or a reward, and even what your horse expects.

Some horses can become very food aggressive and will happily push anybody (and everybody, including other horses) out of the way just to get an extra morsel of food. It’s generally not advisable to feed horses like this from your hand, you may be okay but they can easily nip your fingers in their excitement.

You might not think that whether or not you feed concentrates to your horse will make a difference but it’s more to do with what they expect rather than what you’re feeding them. For example, if a horse is only eating forage they’re not used to getting food given to them so won’t be expecting it. Horses that are fed concentrate in their diet, on the other hand, are more used to being given extra food so are more likely to expect it.

The best way to hand feed anything to a horse is as a reward or as an occasional treat. If you’re training your horse then rewarding them with hand fed treats can actually help your horse to learn quicker. This might sound silly but if your horse does something right, or if you’ve had a particularly tough training session then feeding them a treat in this way can help them to learn that they’ve done the right thing. 

Likewise, if you hand feed your horse occasional treats then they won’t learn to expect them because they won’t know when they’re going to get them. This will stop the horse from looking for them every time, and also mugging other people for treats.

Is it safe to hand feed a horse?

While horses don’t have sharp teeth they do have strong bites and can accidentally nip or bite you if don’t hand feed them in the right way. Horses have blind spots directly in front of their noses so can’t see your fingers if you’re holding a treat so don’t know exactly what it is they’re biting. Even if your hand is flat they still can’t see it but they’ll use their nose to find the food and lips to feel around for it.

It’s also important to say that when feeding horses treats (regardless of whether you’re doing so by hand or not) you should never feed a horse without the owner’s permission. Some horses are on special diets and feeding them anything else could cause them harm but if you don’t know the horse then you don’t know whether or not they’re likely to bite when feeding them from your hand.

If you’re not sure if it’s safe to feed a horse by hand then don’t do it, instead put the treats in a bucket and let your horse eat them from there. That way they’ll still get the treats and your fingers will remain intact and free of bruises!

How do you feed a horse by hand?

When feeding a horse by hand the only thing that you need to remember really is to make sure your hand is flat and that your fingers are closed. Holding your hands around something, such as an apple, is a surefire way of having your fingers bitten. 

You should also remember that, despite their size, horses are nervous animals and won’t thank you for rushing over to them yelling you’ve got a treat for them. Instead approach the horse calmly, talking to them to let them know you’re there. Once you’re next to the horse open your hand fully, with your fingers closed, and let them smell the treat you’ve got by placing your hand beneath their nose. Allow them to find it with their lips before moving your hand slightly towards their mouth. Once the horse has finished tell them there’s no more and let them see your empty hand.

What can you hand feed to a horse?

What you actually feed a horse is up to you, some horses prefer things such as apples, watermelons, and even pumpkins while others prefer sweet treats such as mint candies or sugar lumps, although if you’re going to feed these to your horse you might want to think about brushing their teeth too. If you’re not sure what is okay to feed a horse and what isn’t then you might find these two articles helpful:

Hand feeding a horse to reduce stress

Known as counter-conditioning, feeding a horse food (no matter what it is) when they’re in a stressful situation or feeling anxious or fearful can actually help to calm them. This is because eating increases their levels of relaxation, comfort, and even how safe they feel so, therefore changes how they respond to negative situations.

You can use this method to train your horse to be calm and relaxed when the farrier visits, it’s deworming or vaccine time, or even when you need to transport your horse.

Hand feeding a horse as a training method

Sometimes referred to as positive reinforcement training, hand feeding horses as a training method can increase a horse’s desire to do a particular task properly as well as enable them to engage with you more.

Feeding a treat along with a verbal cue will let your horse know that what he’s just done was spot on and exactly what you wanted him to do. It’s important though to use the verbal cue at the right time to make sure you’re rewarding the right behavior. Too early or too late and your horse will associate that behavior with the reward instead of the behavior you’re actually rewarding him for. For example, if you’re training a horse to walk up to a mounting block, wait for the rider to mount, and then walk off again it’s important to use the cue once the rider is sitting on the horse. Too early and the horse will think he’s being rewarded for walking to the block, but too late and he’ll think walking away is the right thing and could end up wandering off before the rider has mounted.

It’s interesting to note that the riders of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna use this training method as a reward for their horses after each performance. They have a ‘sugar pocket’ hidden in the long tails of their jackets and always give the horse a sugar lump after each show. 

Hand feeding a horse to build trust

Food is very important to horses (as it is to us too) and feeding them by hand, either treats or handfuls of hay or grain, can show them that you’re not a threat to them and won’t harm them. 

This is especially good with horses that haven’t been handled much but can also work just as well with a young, new, or nervous horse. Just be patient and let the horse take the food from you when he’s ready, don’t force him to eat it by shoving it under his nose if he’s not ready to take it from you.

How to avoid a nippy horse when feeding by hand

Of course, there will always be food aggressive horses but as a rule, horses only become nippy when they get excited about treats or when they expect them, but you can train your horse to not behave like this (regardless of how often you hand feed them treats).

By using a simple verbal cue when you’re going to give your horse a treat he’ll soon learn that he’ll only get a treat when he hears the cue. It doesn’t matter what you use as a cue but make sure it’s not something that you’re likely to inadvertently use at other times. I always say ‘munchie time’ to my horses when I give them treats because it’s not something I’m likely to use in everyday conversation.

When actually feeding a horse don’t pull your hand away as they’re taking the food. You might think that it’s in their mouth now so doesn’t matter but the horse might think you’re not going to give them the treat after all and make a lunge for it. Instead move your hand slightly towards their mouth as they take it, once they’ve finished you can remove it then.

Horses are quick learners when they want to be and will constantly nudge you or mug you for treats if they think you might have some which is why it’s a good idea to let them know when there are no more left. You can easily do this by letting him see your empty hand and telling him ‘no more’. He’ll soon learn that the treats are gone and won’t look for them or nudge you to get more.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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