Using Treats to Train Horses

I personally do not believe in giving treats when training because a horse is a conditioned animal. When I was located at a training facility that I drove to every morning, my horses would nicker and come running up to the end of the paddock because they recognized the sound of my diesel engine even before they saw the truck. It became a conditioned response for them. Most people thought that was nice and that they loved me but actually they knew that once I got there, they would soon be fed.

So what has that got to do with training and treats? In both situations the horse is looking for and expecting food. I had a client at the barn who gave carrots to the horses every time she came visited. They began to nicker when they saw her, and even though she put the carrots in the feed bins, the horses became aggressive.

There are trainers, called clicker trainers, who use treats as training rewards. Even they will tell you that it requires finesse and perseverance to get a horse that has been trained by receiving treats to perform without the reward. I’ve seen well known clicker training clinicians who do a very good job but still allow the horses to invade their space looking for that treat. While this method works, I don’t believe it is the best way to train a horse. Train your horse to recognize and respond to cues. Be consistent in your use of the cues and follow through until the horse responds. Any horse can be trained to do tricks like bowing, rearing, and going up on a pedestal without treats.

The point is that we should not establish a pattern; rather, we should establish respect. Teaching people to require respect from their horses is a difficult lesson to get across. Most everyone would agree that when we are working with a horse, we want to use the least amount of pressure when we ask for something. What is not so easy to teach is that when the horse doesn’t move back, you must increase the pressure in order to maintain the horse’s respect. Most people understand this principle intellectually but in reality can’t follow through with enough force. Follow through often forces us to get out of our comfort zone, but for safety, if nothing else, it is essential that we have the respect of our horses.