My horse is kept at a private barn that is on the town’s trail system and where there is a dental office on the property. As a result, I frequently find people (usually mothers with small children, but not always) leaning over the fence and trying to tempt the horses over with carrots, apples and the occasional finger. Once or twice I’ve found small children in the paddock seeking to make friends with the 1200-plus pound animals who live there. One morning I arrived to find the remains of about half a bag of mini carrots scattered near the fence line. Later I saw the perpetrator: a grown man who liked to throw food at the horses when he walked his dog.
I certainly understand the magnetic draw that horses have on small and large alike. When I was a child I knew the exact location and turnout schedule of every horse within a 25 mile radius of my home. I dreamed about sneaking into the paddocks at night and riding bareback and bridle-less performing daring stunts. Dreams, that never were enacted, of course.
It wasn’t until I was a horse owner that I gained a different perspective. A view tainted by liability and behavioral issues. As a horse owner, I rarely feed treats to my horse by hand. There’s something about a large animal that expects a treat that makes me uncomfortable, especially when you’re standing in a field with the horse trying crawl into your pocket. I’ve also seen the negative consequences of horses that are fighting at the fence line to get first access to someone holding a treat — horses that have kicked out and injured another horse, or who have kicked a dog. I’ve seen a child that knocked down by a large pony that was looking for food and an adult who was kicked by the same pony.
Then there’s the issue of nutrition. Not every horse should be fed carrots or apples. The above mentioned pony had foundered and carrots were off limits to her. Certainly none of the kids who wanted to feed her wanted to do her harm, but they simply didn’t know whether it was okay because they didn’t ask. Many people don’t think twice about the plastic bags and twist ties that they inadvertently drop in the field after they’ve fed their snacks (or which blows out of their hands into the field) because they have no idea of the possible consequences. I’ve spoken to the manager of a local farm and she tells me that the range of food (and non food) items that people offer the animals is mind boggling.
If you walked up to a stranger’s child and offered them food, you’d certainly get an earful from their parent. And few parents would tell their children that it’s okay to go pat the two rottweilers running around a fenced in yard but many people have no fear of their children playing with 1200 lb horses that have steel shoes.
So, therein lies my dilemma. I hate to spoil their fun. Most of the time it’s harmless and I know how much the kids enjoy the horses. Right now my solution is to try to educate. Many of the people who stop by the horses are repeat visitors. When I see them I bring my horse over for a supervised visit, wearing a halter and lead rope and tell them how to interact safely with horses. But I’m also considering installing the sign about fingers!