Hand Feeding and Muzzle Touching

by Tina Barnes


When I wear my equine behaviorist hat I am usually attending a call to help horse owners who have horses with dangerous issues. Dangerous to the humans usually but sometimes dangerous to other horses.

I can easily say that the majority of cases can all be traced back to hand feeding, reward training, and/or hand to muzzle playfulness or petting.

The reason is straight up simple.

When horses meet, even if from across a large field, they begin to assess each other’s position in the relationship.

This can look like posturing, the neck arches, head tucks in toward chest, movement becomes more upward than forward…puffing up to their fullest potential.

As the horses close the gap between them the language begins to shift and in some cases the horses will swing to meet hind end to hind end with a full on kicking match. This is especially typical of mares when meeting.

Stallions and gelding tend to meet head on muzzle to muzzle, eye to eye remaining in the full blown posturing position.

The dialogue I want to talk about here that relates directly to hand feeding is this:

In the first instants of muzzle to muzzle contact the horses are deciding if the other is a threat to them or perhaps a potential playmate.

If they meet muzzle to muzzle eye to eye a small nip or series of nips will be given and if one horse steps back and away he has relinquished leadership to the other horse.

If neither steps back and away the ‘nips’ escalate upward in intensity to stronger bites, to striking, to biting hard on the shoulders, to biting behind the front legs in order to bring the other horse down and make him step away. From there the escalation moves to biting below the eye of the other horse and finally rearing and biting down on the top of the other horse’s head or clamping down hard and holding on to the withers of the other horse.

Eventually one or the other will give in and step back and away and the herd order is set…for the time being.

Often the initial muzzle to muzzle contact will simply be invitation to play.

No battle for herd order is necessary.

It’s all just fun.


What is horse play?

Running, biting, striking, rearing, kicking, swinging and bashing heads.

When we reach out to the horse’s muzzle with our hand we are replicating the muzzle to muzzle contact that horses use to communicate dozens of messages.

For the majority of ‘well trained’, ‘desensitized’ ‘bomb proof’ horses this contact has become meaningless.

In my world these horses fall mid-range as being neither extremely intelligent or as having an extreme survival need. In other words horses that would be on the top of or the bottom of the pecking order.

These two ends of the spectrum will make up the horses that are the most difficult to train.

Neither bend easily to the will of man.

They are not compliant.

Successful trainers who have the pick of horses to train will often use scaling techniques to choose compliant horses.

Given the choice of several horses that are all ‘equal’ in his eyes as for their intended use the trainer will determine trainability.

Sometimes this is determined quickly by applying light pressure to the bridge of the nose of the horse to see if he ‘gives’ or pushes back.

If he ‘gives’ he is compliant.

If he ‘pushes back’ he is not as compliant on the scale.

If he pushes back and pressure is applied again and he gives he is rated accordingly and so on.

When we hand feed or play with the muzzle and we ‘ask for play’ and the horse obliges by nipping, or biting, or striking, or chasing us out of his stall or paddock we become upset with his behavior and usually punish the horse by hitting back…which unfortunately is still play to most horses which causes his play to magnify in intensity.

This is when some horses become dangerous.

A good number of horses I have worked with due to these issues have been slated for destruction and by that I mean either shipped off to the ‘killers’ or euthanized.

I am not usually the first person people call in..

I am usually the last effort to help the horse.

It is hard for someone like me to watch the slippery slope well intentioned people are sending their horses down and not say anything so I hope this platform will reach some ‘well intentioned’ eyes and ears.

Recently I watched a man who was visiting the facility where I keep my horses as he interacted with another boarder’s horse. He began by stroking the horse nicely along the side of the head and worked his way down to the muzzle and ‘massaged’ the muzzle. He opened his hand and allowed the horse to rake his palm with his teeth with enough pressure that it required effort on the man’s part to hold steady.

When he took his hand away the horse bit his jacket sleeve.

The man swiped the horse’s head away from him.

Not a hit, just a swipe with his arm to ‘brush him away’.

The horse responded by immediately swinging his head back in and grabbed the man’s jacket in his teeth.

To the horse biting clothing is no different than biting flesh or bone.

If you allow one, you condone the other.

This is the beginning of the slippery slope.

The swipe of the arm becomes the smack on the face eventually turning into harder hits to try to keep the horse from coming close enough to bite or in an attempt to teach it not to bite.

For this adult grown man this was simply playing, interacting with the horse.

To a smaller person, a woman, a child or an elder this is anything but play.

I’ve watched this horse lunge at small children as they pass by his paddock if they have fed a carrot to the horse nearby.

Near misses and sadly it is 100% not the horse’s fault.

It is important to me and our clients that our therapy horses have quiet mouths.

It is important that they not be searching for apples and carrots while being in close contact with the frail elders, small children or those who are simply afraid of the physical size of the horse.

So important.

Thank you for reading

​A few of the reasons we don't hand feed or encourage uneducated 'touching' of our therapy horses can be seen in these images. We can trust them to be calm and good natured with our most vulnerable clients.

 Medicine Horse Sanctuary Society