Well, there is a big ongoing discussion on if you should give your horse treats or not.
But, I think there is more than just “to treat or not to treat”.
Each of the “what”, “when”, “how”, “why”, and “if” questions are very important. They can mean the difference between a well-mannered horse or a food aggressive horse.
And by doing it the way you think as opposed to the way your horse thinks can actually turn a gentle horse around food into a food aggressive horse.
I’ve seen people accidentally train their horse to be aggressive around food without understanding that they actually taught the bad behavior.
They just think that their horse is now being bad, but in reality, they are training their horse’s bad behavior.
However, just as easily as it was accidentally trained it can be re-trained.
You think such a simple thing like giving your horse a treat or not would have a simple answer.
Here is the question one of my readers, Sarah, asked me this week:
Just another quick question about treats 🙂
I know your horses live at your place, so treats are possibly handled a bit differently. I see my horse every day (she is 10 minutes away from where I live) anything from 15 min (if it is pouring with rain) to several hours. 🙂
My horse loves treats, so rather than giving them at the same time each time (as I used to give her a treat when we came back from a ride and had arrived back at our paddock gate and then also when I was putting her away in her paddock once I had taken the halter off) am I better to give her a treat say one day as I am catching her, and the next day perhaps when I have let her go, and another day, perhaps just after brushing her. Do you know what I mean??
I only give her a piece of carrot each time, I don’t give her a whole carrot or multiple carrots.
Thank you. I am just seeking a little more clarification.”
And here is my answer to her:
“Absolutely! Giving her a treat as you described in your question is perfect.
Personally, I have found that if I give my horse a treat at the same time, every day, it makes him expect the treat and then demand the treat, and pretty quickly he can become more aggressive because of the treats.
I’ve seen this in my students, and I’ve done this myself and that’s why I say this. So, I agree that giving the treats at different times and not all the time, or every day, is a good idea.
And to give more of a detailed answer, as this only takes care of the “When”…
There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about treats out there – do you give or don’t you? So, let me give you my personal opinion.
I think you should not only ask “if” you should give them, but also “when”, “what”, “why”, and “how”. Since I answered the “when” above, let me answer the others below.
As for the “What”, I agree with you about giving pieces of carrots or apples so they are bite-size and can be eaten and given easily. I’ve seen people give apples and seen a horse start to choke.
On two occasions, I’ve had to put my hand down their throat and pull out the apple, since horses can’t throw up and get it out.
Even if I have a whole carrot, I will ask the horse to take a bite, wait until they have finished chewing it, and then allow them to take another bite.
I also give different types of treats for different reasons.
And that takes us into the “Why” are you giving treats?
For me – WHY?
- I like to hang out with my boys and when we all are done and I’ve really enjoyed their company and their kindness, I will give them a treat to say “Thank You”.
- If we are training and they did something new and they did it well, I like to give a treat to not only say “Thank You”, but also as a reward for doing the training well. Positive reinforcement actually helps your horse remember what he did and process it better to help the training stick.
- Sometimes I just want to say “Hi” and “I Love You” by giving a treat…something special that I know he really likes. Peppermints are our special treat. And on a hot day, I’ll bring him cold watermelon as a special treat to cool him off and say, “I’m thinking of you”.
- And sometimes my “treat” isn’t food – it’s a scratch in the right place, or a hug, or a “good boy”, or a trip out to the best grassy spot on the farm. A “thank you” or “I love you” doesn’t have to be food, especially if you have a food aggressive horse.
Don’t you like it when your significant other brings you something special every now and then? Roses, lunch, or a love letter? However, if you got those things every day, they wouldn’t mean the same and they would lose their specialness.
Plus, personally, I would question the “why” I was getting those things every day. I would think, “OK, what did you do that you’re trying to make up for?”
So, the “when” and the “why” are important in the human world of giving treats too.
Then there is the “How”. If my husband came home with flowers and threw them on the counter, walked by and said, “Hey I got you flowers and they’re in the kitchen” and kept walking, I wouldn’t want them.
But, if he brought the flowers to me, handed them to me, kissed me, and said, “I just wanted to tell you how special you are”. I would feel so special and would cherish those flowers and the feeling they brought me. Wouldn’t you?
How you give your horse treats is also that important. Here is a video that shows a simple way to give your horse treats that also shows how quickly they can become aggressive if done incorrectly.
But, in general, I think giving treats is a gift that we give our horses when the connection is good, and we are enjoying some special time together. You shouldn’t give them all the time or even every day.
If they get aggressive or if they get pushy, then you can change the treats from being food to being scratches or something else they like. But as a training reward, a thank you, to say I love you, or for some other reason, I think a treat it’s ok.
Just use your head, and your feelings, on when you give treats and how you give treats and watch how your horse reacts. That will tell you a lot as well.
I hope that answered your question and was helpful.”
That may have been a long answer, but I feel it is an important topic and isn’t just a simple yes or no answer even though it seems like such a simple question.
And on the same subject but with a different animal – here is a follow up on Mark’s cat situation.
If you remember an earlier blog my business partner and friend Mark was trying to train his cats to stay off the countertops (since their last owner would feed them on the counters). He was using a spray bottle that either had water in it or just air, so they got a quick puff of air or spritz of water to follow his request to get off the counters.
Well, it worked somewhat. So, he decided to change his tactics and use treats. And it worked so well that he is using treats to train something new.
One of his new cats is overweight and the vet has told him that he needs to put the cat on a diet in order to improve his health. But Mark has found that rather hard as they need to measure his food, make sure he only eats his food and not the other cat’s as well, and they need to keep checking his weight.
OK, who out there has tried to put a cat on a scale to check his weight? I have and it’s not easy. I ended up just getting on the scale myself and then got back on with the cat in my arms and the difference was what the cat weighed. Not sure if that was too accurate, but that’s how I managed it.
Well, Mark figured out something else that was much more accurate. He used treats! And look at what he was able to accomplish with his cat…
His cat now goes on the scale and gets a treat when he does. The Power of Treats!
Let me know if you have any interesting treat stories. I’d love to hear them. Please let me know in the comments below.