It seems like there are two sorts of people: those who train using treats, and those who don’t. Many sects of horsemanship are against the idea of food rewards, but there are also those that swear by the usage of horse treats. I am that standing tree in the middle that does not share opinion with either side, and I’ll attempt to explain why in this post.
Treats are generally used by those who train using positive reinforcement. Now before you get your horseman’s bible out and start trying to thump it, I love positive reinforcement. PR is great! I use treats and positive reinforcement all the time. My perspective is not coming from using PR as a training method, but rather as a regular human being who likes to make others feel good about their accomplishments. The deal with PR is, a horse can learn what he needs to do get the food, but he does not learn about the things he shouldn’t do, often times creating a very dangerous situation and (lets face it) a needy horse. I also see horses forgetting what they, as horses, would instinctually do in order to get their teeth into some treats.
So, by now you might be wondering what the appropriate ration of treats looks like, or whether you should be using them at all? If you’re a firm believer in NO TREATS, maybe I can put some new ideas into your head. Part of this debate just has to do with personal preference, so there is no pressure to start (or stop!) using treats.
How horses see food:
- As a right. Grass grows. They eat it. It runs out. They find more …the cycle goes on. When us humans came along and moderated their food supply, pecking order develops around the feeding process which can get very violent because of their instincts to survive. Food in moderated supply will bring out the worst in your horse, depending on how dominant he/she is.
- Milk comes from Mama. Young horses or immature horses will tend to see food as something supplied by their mother. He views the treat giving human as a ‘milk machine’ and thinks that you want him to snuggle up close. This seems cute and nice – he’s relying on you -but in reality we want our horses relying on us for leadership, not food. This issue may also come from being weaned too young, or improperly.
- As ‘last stop burger shop’ When a horse is on a trail ride and keeps nipping up the grass, the rider will try to stop him, right? The horse is ‘fat and gluttonous’ right? Not at all. This horse is seriously taking care of his needs in that moment because who knows when he’ll eat again? We know that we’re heading back to the house for lunch but he doesn’t. Horses don’t have the capabilities of putting the pieces together and making a decision. Sometimes food will cause horses to go more into instinct mode and then they won’t be able to stop themselves.
The affects of food on horses can often mean something negative for us humans. But used appropriately, treats can actually help the horse release dopamine (the drug released by licking and chewing) and therefore relax him.
Times to use treats:
- Correcting herd bound behaviour. I planted a pail just out of our comfort zone and walked Storm there. So instead of believing that I was taking him out of safety and away from his food supply, I was actually meeting his needs by taking him to food, just like an alpha horse would. It’s a good opportunity to feed minerals or vitamins too!
- Teaching tricks. If that’s what you’re into, food works great. I personally don’t like the psychological affects that tricks have on horses, but if you’re dead and determined to have a trick horse, treats are the way to do it without too much deadening of the mind.
- Loosening up a tense horse. The actual motion of eating something sometimes helps to relax horses who are very quiet and very tense. In my experience, these types of horses NEVER become pushy and nibbly, whereas any other horse would. Just make sure that you accompany the treat with verbal praise and physical comfort as well. Treats should never become the ‘it’ for this horse.
- Introducing a scary object. Bad saddle. Good saddle! Bad chair. Good chair! Treats can often change a horse’s mind about something. He thinks to himself that the dreaded thing might actually be able to meet his needs, and then it’s hard to get them away from it! Watch out with putting treats on saddles though – you could end up with a very battered saddle by the end.
Treats should be used delicately and tastefully (no pun in tended!) Use it like you use dessert with a child. Too much will make them greedy and disrespectful; none, and you’ll need to rely on your wits and wisdom (which is not a bad thing!) Use your discretion.
Times to NEVER use treats:
- When the horse is naturally pushy and/or mouthy. This is a recipe for disaster if you have not had several sessions of good, quality work with this horse. If he cannot stand several feet away from you without that urge to eat you up, DON’T FEED HIM TREATS!
- To get my horse to like me. Bribery does not work in any relationship. You cannot make your horse like you by using treats. This is not a real connection, this is a pillowed relationship that is going to fail if you don’t turn it around.
- When there’s a weight issue. Sometimes, extended use of treats can cause health problems. If I am dealing with an obese, inactive, lamonitic barrel, then I’m going to have to find another way of praise. I’m not going to sacrifice the health of a horse because of an unbalanced reliance on treats.