Friday, February 15, 2008

How a Horse Eats a Carrot

You can tell a lot about a horse based upon how it eats a carrot. Before anyone points out that Gabbrielle is being fed a carrot "the wrong way" in the picture above, I'll bring it up myself. I have always been taught to lay a slice of carrot or apple in my palm and offer it to the horse with a flat hand to avoid having it mistake your fingers as a portion of the food. This is good advice if you are feeding a horse that you do not know very well.

One of my nicknames for Lostine, my oldest mare, is "Miss Piggy", because she will inhale your entire hand along with the carrot. The flat hand technique doesn't work with her, because she envelops the entire hand with her lips and bites down on the food, occasionally biting the palm of the hand. We began handfeeding her with the technique shown above, which only works with long foods like carrots and celery. Everything else goes into a bucket or food trough where our hands won't be at risk. When we do handfeed her, we limit how much she can bite off by settling her down, saying "Easy, easy..." in a tone that tells her to be cautious, and pulling the food away when she tries to snatch it aggressively, followed by a stern "No!" It only takes a couple of these efforts before she gentles her approach, and bites off the end of the carrot instead of behaving like a sword swallower, taking in the whole thing. We also refuse to give the horses another bite until they have chewed and swallowed the last bite.

Bombay's bites are always gentle, and he shows awareness of our hands by feeling for them with his lips before taking a bite of the food. He is very careful not to bite skin. If we do feed him a chunk of carrot in the flat of our hands, he bites just to top portion of the carrot and lifts it out of our hands before chewing. When he was a colt, he nipped at people quite a bit, and we had to correct the problem in a hurry before somone got seriously hurt. Even after he was gelded, he still nipped. We let him know that biting was not acceptable, and now he is a very considerate young man.

Gabbrielle has always been gentle. She came to me from a breeder who had a very large number of horses, and she behaved as if she had never seen a carrot before. It took a lot of coaxing to get her to eat one at first. When we hand her a carrot, she sniffs around to determine where the food starts and ends, and where the hand starts and ends. She then takes a tiny bite of carrot and chews it for a long time. We praise her for her gentleness, so she continues to be gentle while taking food from our hands.

Gabbrielle is three-years-old this year, but still too petite to be ridden. I plan to drive her on the long reins this year and then whenever she fills out enough, I'll start riding her. I'm hoping the gentleness she exhibits during handfeeding will extend itself into her training. I started her with a lightweight western saddle last spring, and she accepted it readily. I then lunged her with a dressage saddle, letting the heavy metal stirrups bang against her sides. None of it seemed to bother her. When I ride the other horses, she stretches her head over the railing to watch and sometimes pokes my leg with her nose as we pass, as if asking me to ride her next. I tell her to be patient. In the meantime, I hand her carrots and praise her for being such a considerate eater.


Tracey said...

Gabbrielle looks very sweet!

BarnGoddess said...

I found you thru Scary.

lol, I can relate to this post. I once had a Paso mare that would chomp your fingers off. My Old Guy (he just turned 29 yo, Ive owned him 22 yrs) takes everything w/ his lips gently before biting down, he is a gentleman.

I enjoyed reading about your different horses, they are all very different, just like humans :)

Kris said...

Found you via Scary's. I feed ours both ways! I have my daughter do the open hand way, just to protect her. But ours would rather it it while you hold it and when we get to the bottom, I just lay it flat out in my hand and they take it. But you know horses are so different, safety is always priority! Enjoyed your blog and will be checking back in.