Its an age old argument. Should you feed your horses treats? I rarely find people that are ambivalent on the subject. Most people are very strongly for or against the practice. I know a rare few people that will only feed treats when teaching “tricks,” but are strictly no treats for all other activities. I’ve come across a lot more trainers that have absolute “no treat” rules in their barns.
It’s probably not hard to figure out where I land on the subject. If you’ve read any of my blogs, I write about doling out treats liberally for good behaviors or for the horse/pony/donkey simply existing. I admit I’m confused by the people that are absolutely no treats. If you’ve spent five minutes around horses, it doesn’t take long to figure out that 95% of their brain is focused on finding and eating food. I understand that you may want to capitalize on that 5% of their brain that is not focused on obtaining food when training, but what if you gave out treats for desired behaviors and maybe achieved 100% focus from your horse? Obviously giving out treats while in the saddle is less than ideal and there are better ways of achieving desired results, but I’m still stumped why some trainers are so against the practice at any time.
I’ve been given reasons like: It teaches the horse to bite, they get mouthy, they are disrespectful, I want my horses to perform without having to give them treats blah, blah, blah. On the first three most common reasons given, I say you’re giving treats incorrectly if the horse is biting, mouthing, or being disrespectful. You need to work on the timing of when you give a treat, and if the horse is responding to you with any negative behavior no matter how benign, that would not be the moment to feed treats. If they are doing any of those behaviors or something as small as pinned ears then they absolutely should not receive treats and maybe get a little work thrown in for being a $hit.
On the last one, horses in my experience are generally more intelligent than most of their handlers, and they figure out relatively quickly that some behaviors will be required in the absence of treats. On the rare occasion that I run out of treats or simply forget to pack them (gasp!) My horses still perform as expected no better or worse. We both may have been a little disheartened that we weren’t sharing the joy of them eating the snacks I handed them, but my animals know their job, and do it anyway all other factors aside.
The same people that absolutely never give out treats are also the same people that have miserable, mechanical acting animals in my experience. They have complaints about difficult to catch horses or horses that run the other way in turnout when they see a halter. I liken them to the Wicked Witch of West or Almira Gulch from the Wizard of Oz. They suck the fun out of horse ownership making it all about work.
Oddly enough I don’t have their problems. I can walk into my pasture with a halter and be surrounded by every single horse in less than 5 minutes. I can walk away from them with said halter, and they fall into line behind me following me. Will every horse in the pasture get a treat at some point whether I’m catching them or not? Absolutely! Will they leave me once the treats run out? No. They will continue to hang out in the hopes that more treats will materialize within my pockets, or at the very least I’ll feel inclined to scratch the hard to reach areas for them.
When I turn my horses out after a hard riding session, they don’t run bolting back to their pasture mates kicking dirt above my head. They hang out with me. Sometimes, they’ll even indulge me with a little post ride liberty work, before heading back out to the herd. Like most animals including myself, treats can be extremely motivating. Just like myself, my horses are completely willing and capable of performing without treats, but also like myself the task at hand is always better if you know there is something yummy waiting for you at the end!