There can be a real split in the horse community regarding the feeding of treats. Should you give them from your hand or from a bucket? Should you use them for training or only for health and for relational enjoyment? Should you train with treats? Well, I’ve learned that some horses respond well to the use of treats in training situations but timing and setup are very important so that the training doesn’t get lost in the pursuit of the treat. Here’s a list of pitfalls and peaks to look for when you are working with your horse and using treats. There is also a list of do’s and don’ts to consider as you progress. Good luck and enjoy your horse.
Pitfall: Giving the horse a treat too soon for achieving a task he may not develop the motivation to try, to figure out the puzzle I presented or to defer to my leadership with questions about when or how to continue in a task.
Peaks: You can make it more fun for both of you and build the motivation for try. Stay focused on what your desired outcome is and learn to wait for it. Treats do not motivate at this moment. Set it up as a reward not a bribe. Determine how the best delivery and timing works for your horse. Notice the effect that receiving the reward has on the horse in the moment and if it helps or hinders the continuation of the training.
Pitfall: The treat-training treadmill? The horse smells the treats and is accosting you for them without doing your request.
Peaks: Know that you will only give the treat reward when the horse is in the best state of mind. You are looking for behaviors that confirm calmness, thinking, relaxation, connection.
Pitfall: Feeding treats to a nervous and distracted horse! Doing this only reinforces the behavior that is happening in that moment IF the horse takes the treat and can eat it. The horse will end up being rewarded for fearful behavior or caustic behaviors. It can end up expecting the treat in those moments and the desired result gets lost in the drive for a treat.
Peak: The horse is in the best state of mind and relaxes MORE when it receives the treat.
Pitfall: The horse cannot accept the treat or if it does the treat is held inside the mouth without chewing. The horse is shutdown or even too fearful to think about eating.
Peak: The horse is blinking, thinking and breathing and can accept the treat and chew it up.
So here’s the lesson for us as teachers of our horses. FEEDING is often just a distraction. Feeding makes us feel good and friendly towards our horse. I suggest that you consider implementing some of these Do & Don’t ideas and explore how they can improve the focus of your training.
DO: focus your training on your horse’s state of mind and emotional state
DON’T: reward your horse with a food treat when your horse is high energy in the hope of calming and distracting it to obey
DO: set the horse up to “self-reward” by becoming curious and exploring on request
DON’T: lead the horse to a treat and help them “find” it because you are in effect giving it from your hand
DO: discover ways to help your horse relax at key points during the training process
DON’T: don’t reward when you expect relaxation - treat becomes a distraction - the relaxation is the treat
DO: treat yourself when the horse is relaxing and take an assessment of your emotional state
DON’T: push through or get emotional with your cues when your horse is already not relaxed
When you think about even just one of the Do/Don’t or Pitfall/Peak scenarios when training your use of treats will be better timed and the horse will give you better responses. Now that you know - Be Encouraged and Be Better!