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 those who swear them. Neither sides are wrong. I’ll try to explain why.
Treats are part of the positive reinforcement stereotype, which is why some people have a big problem with them. Nippy horses that invade space and become dangerous are often the horses who get treated often.
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. The deal with PR is that a horse can learn what he needs to do to get the food, but he does not always learn what shouldn’t do. This can create a very dangerous situation and (lets face it) a needy horse. Treats can also be used to ‘train the horse out of the horse’ – reducing them to a begging dog under the table.
You might be wondering what the appropriate ration of treats looks like, or whether you should be using them at all? Part of this debate just has to do with personal preference, so there is no pressure to start (or stop!) using treats.
First, lets look at all the ways horses perceive food offerings.
How horses see food:
- As a right. Grass grows. They eat it. It runs out. They find more …the cycle goes on. When humans came along and moderate 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 they are.
- Something that comes from their mother. Young 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 you want him to snuggle up close. This seems cute and nice, but in reality this is not safe! If you are working with a horse is still a baby in this mindset, or grown but immature, there are other issues to work on that shouldn’t involve treats.
- Their only lifeline. Grazing on the trail is really annoying, right? The horse is being annoying, right? Not at all. This horse is just taking care of his needs. We know that we’re heading back to the house for lunch, but he doesn’t. Horses don’t plan like we do. Sometimes hunger or just the idea of food will cause horses to follow their instincts rather than their brains.
The affects of food on horses can often mean something negative for 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, 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 effects that tricks have on horses, but if you’re dead and determined to have a trick horse, treats are the way to do it.
- Loosening up a tense horse. The actual motion of eating something sometimes helps to relax horses who are very quiet and 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 sole reward.
- Introducing a scary object. Treats can often change a horse’s mind about something. That dreaded thing or place might actually be able to meet his needs instead of scaring him. But watch out with putting treats on saddles – you could end up with very battered equipment!
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 your horse to like you. 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.
There is no one right way of using treats, but there are many bad ways. Use them at your discretion.
This post was edited March 2018.