There are a lot of horsey people who do not believe in using treats to train a horse or even as a snack. They will say that the horse will be mouthy and rude and it will teach them to bite, etc. Others argue that if you train them with treats you will always need to have treats around or they won’t do things for you.
Scientific studies do not back up these beliefs and I have not found them to be true. I’ve trained both with and without treats and I think if it is done right, treats can be a powerful motivator and can really get a horse to enjoy being a partner. I’d really like to address the concern about horses that are nibbly. Some people will smack these horses or yell at them. Often, this turns it into a game for the horse and he/she will look for little opportunities for them to take a nip. Eventually, if it becomes a cat and mouse game like this, the potential for biting is much higher. The pony that I trained (see link in the overview article) was very mouthy and nibbly. Instead of punishing his curiousity I gave him tasks to do with his mouth and a rewarded him when he explored gently. I feel that this made a huge difference for him! More in the biting/nipping article!
When shouldn’t you use treats:
- If your horse is aggressive and super pushy don’t use treats. After you get some respect, treats might be useful.
- Don’t use treats if your horse takes them in an aggressive manner.
- Don’t use treats on a horse that has been teased with treats and tries to snatch them away from you.
- Don’t use treats if you know your horse is fearful.
When should you use treats:
- Use treats if your horse is food motivated and respectful.
- Use treats if your horse just needs a little more motivation and/or if he/she is starting to get bored with a task that they need to do well.
- Use treats to teach natural behaviours that you would like to teach them to do on command.
- Use treats if you don’t want to train a horse with force or as a reward if you’ve had to gently encourage your horse to do something.
What treat should you use:
- I like the Masterfeeds, 16% Horse Krunch. They are balanced nutrition and no sugars like the molasses based treats. I buy them in a big bag and they last forever and way less expensive then paying $2 – 10 for a bag of cookies. Be careful not to overfeed (see bag instructions) if your horse is not used to them and/or overweight.
- Carrots work fine just be careful they are cut into long thin strips so you don’t get bit and the horse doesn’t choke.
- Experiment some and see what works for you.
How to use treats effectively:
- For treats to be effective in teaching a horse a new behaviour, they must be delivered within a second of the behaviour occurring. This applies only to initial stages.
- Can pair with a clicker sound to mark a good behaviour and then the treat follows ASAP. If it is too bothersome to use a clicker just saying good or OK can act as a marker.
- I think the process is best explained with an example. Say you are trying to get a nervous horse to allow you to stand near his/her shoulder. Here’s the process I would follow:
- First step is to make the horse understand the game. To do this, choose a behaviour that the horse will already do and reward the horse for this behaviour several times in a row. So, say the horse will let you stand near the head or neck then you would walk around, say wow, stand near the horses neck for minute or two and then give a treat off your flat hand. Walk around again and do the same thing. Then do it three or four times on the other side.
- Then, do the same thing but when you stop move back a couple inches and if the horse is good, give a treat. Then repeat 3 – 4 times in the same position.
- Continue moving back and rewarding until you can stand at the shoulder.
- Do that a few days in a row and then start waiting a few seconds before giving the treat.
- Once the horse will allow you to stand at the shoulder at least 80% of the time then start phasing out the treats by using verbal praise and a pet every 2nd – 3rd time the horse performs the behaviour.
- Eventually, phase the treats out altogether using just verbal rewards or giving one treat after a session or ride. Try to hide treats so the horse is always guessing.
- If the horse is scared and unwilling to stand then no treat and no praise and just go back to an easier task and progress slower.
- If at any point the horse scrapes, scratches or nips with his/her teeth.. end of game for the day. Back the horse away from you and make him/her stand in a time out for a few seconds, then bring him/her forward and remove the halter and quit. The punishment should match the crime. Sometimes horses will accidently get you. You still need to send a message but don’t be very aggressive about it.
In training some behaviours such as stretches or bows, you may have the treat in a position where the horse cannot see it. This can lead to nips so keep that in mind. If you find that your horse is nipping a lot, you could consider target training them. This would involve training them to touch one hand and then you could feed them a treat after the behaviour is preformed from the other hand.