I get asked a lot about my feelings on feeding horses treats or using treats to encourage certain behaviors. I can never fully explain my thoughts on food rewards since it is much more complicated than a simple “I love them” or “I hate them”. Treats serve to make undesirable activities slightly more bearable for the horse, which can be a good solution when the situation is unavoidable. However, the better situation is to create scenarios where the horse is mentally and physically in a better place as a result of the situation.
A lot of you are probably scratching your heads at this point and wondering what I mean by that. Let me try to explain.
My overall goal for all my horses is that they learn to become relaxed, supple, and through in all their work. Although horses tend to resist this, once they begin to let down and relax they begin to enjoy it. After all, no one likes to be tense and anxious all the time!
As the horse becomes more supple he removes braces and restrictions in his movement. Throughness teaches the horse to use his entire range of motion. It is very powerful and satisfying to move with the ease and power that throughness and suppleness provide a horse. Although horses will get lazy sometimes, there is a sense of freedom in this movement that inherently appeals to a prey animal whose life historically depended on its ability to escape danger.
If every time I apply pressure I am working towards increasing the horse’s relaxation, suppleness, or throughness, I am applying pressure to get to a more enjoyable state for the horse. I release when the horse gives to the pressure, which signifies a release of tension or a movement working towards those states. Eventually the horse will start to associate pressure with these states and will welcome the pressure to help him work through his own tension and anxiety.
With this system I don’t need treats to bribe the horse into things because he is willingly yielding to my pressures and welcoming the guidance that gets him into a better physical and mental state.
Some of you may be thinking that my method sounds like a lot of extra work when treats are a perfectly good option. Let me challenge that point of view.
Treats or food rewards play on the horse’s desire for a limited resource. His insatiable hunger drives him to want the food source even if he has to do some uncomfortable things to get it. The problem with this is that the horse is not actually satisfied with the reward. Have you noticed that your horse will always beg for another treat when he gets one? Much like when you eat a candy and go for a second, your food reward drives the horse to want the reward even more. He begins to search for how to get the food reward and will become anxious if a solution it not easily presented to him. This is best understood by comparing the horse and the food reward to a dog and his ball. Withholding further food reward for the horse is much like telling a dog to stay and then throwing his ball. The dog may be able to resist the temptation, but he will be in an anxious, upset state of mind. Although the food reward helped you accomplish your goal in the given situation, it resulted in increased anxiety for your horse. Do you see how this system fails?
The more you give your horse treats the more he expects and desires them. The food is always on the forefront of his mind and he is easily frustrated when he is not rewarded. You have, through giving frequent food rewards, created an anxious, reactive, unsettled horse.
That being said, there are times I will use food rewards. Trailering is one of them. No matter how much time you spend teaching your horse to calmly go in and out of the trailer and how long you spend getting him relaxed and comfortable in the trailer, it is not a fun place to be. It is just like most people do not enjoy being in elevators or cars. It serves a purpose, but it isn’t enjoyable. In order to make the trailer a slightly less miserable, boring box, I will usually put hay in it so that the horse is occupied and satisfied while in the trailer.
In the above example I am using a food reward to keep the horse content. Note that the food is essentially unlimited as long as the horse is willing to stay on the trailer. Other examples of using food in this manner include giving your horse a hay bag while he stands for you to clean a wound and providing a hay bag while you horse is tied at the trailer waiting for you. I do not ever use treats to elicit specific behaviors, instead I am using a food source as a way to occupy the horse and make him more comfortable.
To wrap it all up, my short response to using food as a reward is a negative one. I think this tends to create anxious, reactive horses. Using low value treats and high quantities (such as a few flakes of hay) can help mitigate this issue, but not completely alleviate it. It is far better to set up situations in which your desired response is intrinsically satisfying to the horse. Once you have cultivated the willing partnership of your horse through helping him feel good in the work you ask him for your horse will begin to find value in your companionship and team work. Then bigger tasks such as jumping fences or performing canter pirouettes become something the horse will willingly offer to keep the connection with you and not displace the harmony the two of you have found. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the occasional unprompted treat just because you feel like it. I love to give my horses treats as much as the next person even if I don’t love training with them!