Actually, it’s no trick at all to get our horses to eat carrots. The “trick” part is getting the horse to do stretching exercises that are both therapeutic and even diagnostic by using carrots as an enticement.
“Carrot tricks” is the name that has stuck to the practice of using treats to loosen the neck and back before tacking up. The diagnostic aspect of this exercise should show you to what degree the horse is more flexible in either direction. You can then take this into account in deciding which exercises you use when you ride.
It also serves as a good warm-up exercise, especially for a stall-bound horse or an older horse. Furthermore, it can help break through stiffness or swelling in the neck that remains from an injury or an inoculation.
The exercise is best done in the middle of the horse’s stall, because he will become quite a contortionist to get his goodies. If need be, you can place the horse next to the stall wall to keep him from turning instead of stretching. You can do carrot tricks in the barn aisle or grooming area if you want but only if the horse will stay put when untied. The barn aisle surface should have good traction, and there shouldn’t be any tack trunks, saddle racks, people or other horses nearby in case the horse swings his haunches suddenly.
Start by showing your horse the piece of carrot and then hold it near his shoulder. He’ll likely reach his nose around for the treat. Encourage the horse to bite off a piece of carrot at a time, or break off a piece yourself, but it’s probably easiest to chop up a couple of carrots and put them in a plastic bag.
The trick part is to get the horse to stretch for the carrot without swinging his haunches. If he’s moving his feet to reach the carrot, there’s no point to the exercise. If he picks up this habit, use his halter to place him next to the side of the stall. If he somehow keeps turning, don’t give him the carrot. Put your hand back in your pocket and walk to his head.
Offer the carrot again near his shoulder, working further back with each bite. Position the carrot as low and as far back as the horse is willing to stretch. Switch sides often. He should eventually catch on that if he swings his haunches around instead of reaching with his neck that the treat will be withdrawn. Depending on the age and flexibility of the horse, you may get him to stretch his nose almost to his stifle area on each side.
One alternative is to hold a piece of carrot between the horse’s knees so he stretches down over his topline. Work your hand back toward the girth area to increase the stretch.
You won’t turn your horse into a treat hound if you keep this exercise to a specific place and time. However, we know horses that will put their noses right back by their sides or down between their knees the instant they see the carrot bag come out.