Giving horses food rewards is an area that people have some strong feelings about. I admit that the common scenario with horses and treats looks more like a mugging than a training session. Picture a horse with his muzzle all over some misguided person who has trained the poor beast that humans loooove to be shoved and frisked and will hand over cookies when treated accordingly. The trainers I respect in the natural horsemanship world have differing opinions about treats- some will use them in some circumstances but some never do. For many years I thought of this as the high road, that if the relationship was good enough one shouldn’t need treats.
Times have changed! While I don’t think anyone needs treats, I think they can be very useful. It was Robin Gates that shifted my opinions on food rewards for good. Robin does use treats in her liberty work with horses, with wonderful effect. She points out that some of a foal’s most salient first experiences are with it’s mother, who allows the polite foal to nurse and can push away one that is being rude.
When thinking about giving my horse treats, I think about what going to work means for me. I love my job and get a great deal of satisfaction from it. Would I go if I wasn’t getting paid? Nope. Would I go if someone made it very uncomfortable to not go and much more comfortable to go? Probably, but I wouldn’t feel as good about it as I do in the scenario where I get paid. Much of natural horsemanship relies on making the wrong behavior difficult for the horse and the right behavior easy. The reward in these methods is the release of pressure. I use these methods all the time with my horses. In the hands of a good trainer, a horse will gain a great deal of comfort from understanding that the human is a good leader and can be trusted enough to follow. These methods are very effective and mirror many of the methods horses use with one another to communicate. The difference between when horses use these methods and when we use them, however, is that horses get a lot more out of being with one another than they do out of being with the average human. We just don’t have an innate pull for horses the way they do for one another, quite the opposite. A horse must get over the fact that we look, smell and move like something that would like to eat them. Assuming that we care whether or not our horses like being with us, it’s worth looking at their motivation. I like thinking that my horses get more from our interactions than simply the avoidance of feeling uncomfortable. Hopefully knowing that I am the leader in the herd does help them relax and feel good, but I like to use food rewards to take things to the next level. What I strive for is fun for my horses. Yes! Fun! With treats the horse get into seeking mode, trying to solve the puzzle of what I want them to do with enthusiasm. Indeed, just like me, my horses get paid when they go to work.
Take hoof trimming for example. I trim my own ponies and I am not a speedy trimmer. My poor beasts have spent many an hour balancing hundreds of pounds of horse flesh on three spindly legs waiting for me to get the job done. When they are particularly aggravated by the flies tickling their ankles or just done with the whole thing they start wanting to take their feet back. It works to stop at that moment and do some groundwork to impress upon them that taking their foot away means a lot of hard work is about to be done by them. After this reminder the calm is restored, often for the rest of the trim. It is usually effective, but it’s not super enjoyable for me or them. Since I have started using treats, however, the horses grow interested at the sight of my trimming tools, usually will follow me into a stall to be trimmed and sometimes even lift their feet in polite anticipation as I am reaching down for them. The result is basically the same, I get the trim done, but there is a different feeling throughout the interaction.
Food rewards are really powerful, which is part of why I believe many people don’t use them. In no time flat you can teach your horse to be a complete jerk! Their use requires careful thought. At a minimum the horse should learn that coming at you with its mouth will not result in treats. It seems awkward at first, but training your horses to turn their heads slightly away from you before they will be given a treat will go a long ways to avoid turning your horse into a pocket diving disaster. It’s as simple as standing there with a treat he can smell in your closed hand and waiting for him to give up trying to nuzzle it out of you and look away- bingo! Give him the treat. Repeat till he gets it consistently and then be consistent in the future yourself- no treats for nosey ponies.
Also consider the relationship you and your horses have. It needs to be clear that the treats belong to you and that they are only given to ponies who are trying very hard to do whatever is being asked of them. The next picture is of where I found Annie after I went to put away some tools and organize a couple things in the tack room. She was standing there, hoping I would come back and give her a treat but not taking one. Those treats are not hers! Sure enough she was given a treat for that kind of respectful waiting.
For best results, think about what your horse is doing the moment before he gets the treat and realize that he will believe whatever that behavior is will get him more treats in the future. You are always training your horse, even in the most casual of interactions, so don’t throw the power of treats behind something meaningless or downright negative. It’s common for horses to get a treat after coming back to the barn after a good workout. This is in fact an awesome way to encourage your horse to be barnsour (as though getting off their backs and leading them back to their buddies were not reward enough!). Use the cookie power for good! In teaching the horses to stand for trimming, for example, I only reward them when they actually have their feet up on the hoof stand. It is no good to finish a foot, put it down and give a treat because the horse stood so nicely while you trimmed. The horse will conclude that putting one’s hoof down is just the thing to do in order to earn a treat. Yikes!
I haven’t found any magic in one treat versus another. Since they don’t make up much of the horses’ diet, I generally buy whichever ones are cheap and won’t dissolve into sticky powder in my pocket. For the portly or downright insulin resistant equines out there I recommend sugar free mints. Sebastian loves them! When he thinks he has been good he arches his neck, tilts his nose away and looks at me with one excited eyeball. I always think of it as him saying “please”.
How about you? Do you use food rewards with your animals?