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Correct feeding practices are essential to a effective and enjoyable training session, and it is also where mistakes and bad habits sneak in the easiest.
How you feed your reinforcement may seem a small detail, but doing so correctly can make a huge difference in your training sessions.
Correct feeding practices help promote relaxation in your horse, can reinforce healthy boundaries, and improve safety to the handler.
So here are some feeding practices I recommend and common mistakes I encounter:
Neutral Head position
When we feed we always want to place our hand and feed in a way where our horses head and neck are in a neutral and relaxed position. A common mistake is to feed too high up with the horses head in a raised position, too low where the horse has to lower their head, too far back so that the horse has to overflex their neck or we stand and feed off to the side where the horse ends up bending their neck towards us or away from us.
Feed away from the body
Make sure to feed your horse away from your body. We want to make sure the horse understands that they get food when they stay in their own space. Don't feed near you or your food pouch, or that is where your horse will go looking for food.
This brings us to the next point
Always go to the horse with the food
don’t make the horse come to you.
When we feed, we always want to bring the food to the horse, and not make the horse feel like they need to come to us to get the food. This reduces crowding for food, as well as improves the behaviour you're working on, by reducing the chance accidentally rewarding another unwanted behaviours such as backing, walking forward or turning if you don't want your horse to do so.
Pay attention to keeping your hand steady whenever your horse is eating from your hand. Often our instincts make us try to pull our hand away due to fear of getting nipped by teeth. But when we pull our hand away, the chance that the horse will use their teeth is higher because they feel like they need to get the food before it moved away. So a good practice to counter that is to get into the habit of lightly pushing up into the horses mouth while feeding. not enough to make our horses raise their head, but just enough that they feel like their food isnt going anywhere, and this will actually help promote the use of lips over teeth.
scoop the nose from above
Another little trick I've found is to consciously "scoop" your horses nose when coming in to feed. Bring your palm from the nostrils down to the upper lip, this tends improve the chance for the horse to use their lip to grab the food, make sure you don’t scoop from the chin, as that tends to make the horse want to grab the food with their lower jaw, which promotes the use of teeths.
While you don't need to use a huge pile of food that you can barely hold in your hand, it's good to use a generous food amount. How much exactly will depend of course on the horse, some take large bites and like larger handfuls others tend to be nibblers and will be happy with a smaller amount, but overall don’t be stingy!
it's important to build good habits. Most horses are quite forgiving, and if you make mistakes they'll make up for them. But there are some horses that demand more attention to detail. Those horses make you improve yourself as a trainer!
There's even more things to learn about feeding practices! For example, depending how you feed you can influence or encourage behaviours you want to teach.
But for now, these practices mentioned above will help you stay safe, and keep your horse happy and relaxed!