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Using Treats to Train a Horse

May 19, 2015
Using Treats to Train a Horse

I personally do not believe in giving treats when training because a horse is a very easily conditioned animal. When I was located at a training facility that I drove to every morning, my horses would nicker and come running up to the end of the paddock because they recognized the sound of my diesel engine even before they saw the truck. It became a conditioned response for them. Most people thought that was nice and that they loved me but actually they knew that once I got there, they would soon be fed. They also got to be aggressive, running into the stall, nickering and basically yelling feed me, feed me, feed me. They would crowd the gate opening and it was hard to get the hay into it. This was some twenty years ago and it was then I began to see the importance of appropriate stall manners. Running into the stall and making a big ruckus, charging the gate to get at the food was just not appropriate or safe. I had to teach them manners. I taught them to stay at the back of the stall and they learned that they were not to rush in and crowd me when I opened the gate to throw in the hay. They learned to wait until I gave them the okay to come in.

So what has that got to do with giving training and treats? It is the situation, the horse looking for and expecting food. I have a client at the barn who gave carrots to five or six horses every time she came in. They began to nicker when they saw her and even though she put the carrots in the feed bins, the horses became aggressive. She found that it was difficult to give the carrots because the horses were crowding the openings. It was the same basic situation. Horses conditioned to receiving food and becoming aggressive when it was not given fast enough.

The point is that we should not establish a pattern and we should establish respect. Teaching people to require respect from their horses is a difficult lesson to get across. Most everyone would agree that when we are working with a horse, we want to use the least amount of pressure when we ask for something. For example, if the horse moves into our space we ask it nicely to move back. This is a lesson that is easy to teach. What is not so easy to teach is that when the horse doesn’t move back, you must increase the pressure in order to maintain the horse’s respect. Most people understand this principle intellectually but in reality can’t follow through with enough force. Follow through often forces us to get out of our comfort zone but for safety, if nothing else, it is essential that we have the respect of our horses.

In 35+ years of training problem horses, performance horses and starting colts, my experience is that people do not follow through. Once I have trained a horse and the horse knows the correct cues, I want my clients to know and use those cues correctly when riding the horse. In doing that the owner will earn the same level of respect from the horse that I have established. If the owner does not use the cues correctly or follow through when the horse tests, the horse will not respect the owner. Having the respect of the horse is a big deal. It not only makes for a more pleasant relationship, it makes the horse safer to be around.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I say how valuable ground work is, I find that most people don’t want to spend time doing ground work. Ground or in hand work can teach a horse to be respectful and make a huge difference when we get in the saddle. When I see a horse dancing at the end of a lead line, I know immediately that horse has no respect for the person leading it. Most people have a difficult time teaching the horse to have good ground manners and maintaining those manners. It takes consistency and follow through. If a horse is not behaving well and you give it a treat, you are reenforcing the behavior and teaching it to be disrespectful.

There are trainers, called clicker trainers, who use treats as training rewards. Even they will tell you that it requires finesse and perseverance to transfer a horse who has been trained by receiving treats to performance without the reward. I’ve seen well known clicker training clinicians who do a very good job but constantly have the horses in their space looking for that treat. While this method works, I don’t believe it is the best way to train a horse. Train your horse to recognize and respond to cues. Be consistent in your use of the cues and follow through until the horse responds. Any horse can be trained or taught to do tricks like bowing, rearing and going up on a pedestal even without treats.

I have had many a person come to me and say their horse won’t load into the trailer. I usually find that the horse was taught to go into the trailer using treats or hay. This may work at times however, when a horse’s emotional level is high, for whatever reason, food will not work. When there is no physical cue, there is no way a horse will go into a trailer. A horse that is frightened or hurt or simply upset will not respond to the lure of food. I’ve seen butt ropes, brooms and rakes used on horses to get them to load and they still won’t go in. I find that overall, no matter the discipline, anything to do with treats usually jeopardizes my client’s safety. In this industry at least 85% of the clientele are women and safety is always the first concern. If you use treats to teach your horse and you are able to maintain his respect, he keeps his distance and does not step into your space, then you are probably one in a thousand. This doesn’t mean that giving treats doesn’t work to train a horse but I don’t believe it is the best way.