WHY SOME TRAINERS HATE USING TREATS - by Don Jessop
The answer to why some trainers don't like feeding treats, is simple. Some horse's get overbearing and dominant in the presence of sugary snacks, or even non-sugary snacks, and they aren't equipped to solve the problem. This problem is easy to solve. I'll describe a little later in the article.
But there is another reason some trainers hate using treats. I believe an evil reason. (can you believe I just said evil? Wow! I never say evil!)
The other reason some trainers avoid using treats is because they believe an animal should "respect" the leader, and treats are gimmicky bribe that only makes a person soft!
I know this is a real reason because I've met these people. They hate seeing people use treats because it's "wimpy". But this reason is evil. (not the people, just the reason). In a safety situation, it's true, an animal should respect his or her leader. Treats don't make safe horses! But in a learning situation, treats can be a wonderful tool for empowering an animal. Treats can cause a boost in effort. And if done correctly, can train an animal to love a human. (AGAIN, I say... Treats don't make safe horses,) but they can help a safe horse love working for the human.
The trick is getting people to use treats properly. Because, honestly, I see too many people using them incorrectly. Some people are too soft. They're unbalanced in their training program. They use way too many treats. Some people just randomly empty their pockets every time they see their horse. Other people use treats because the horse is asking for a treat, and it's hits a soft spot in their heart. (This is a bad idea!)
There is a simple set of principles to follow when using treats and here they are:
1: Don't give treats to a horse that isn't safe! Teach a horse boundaries first. Teach them to be safe first. learn about boundaries in my book - Leadership and horses.
2: Don't give treats to a horse that is begging for treats! Have you ever seen a horse reach though your personal space bubble and try to pick your pockets? Don't allow that. You can still give a treat to that horse, but not in that state of mind! Wait till he's not grabbing. Wait till his mouth is closed. Even bump his mouth with the palm of your hand when he comes flying in at 90 miles an hour. This will interrupt the mouth open, grabby behavior. It's easy, you just have to be firm. Tell him, "the reward will come, when you calm down and close your mouth."
Caesar Milan, the dog whisperer, talks about never petting an anxious dog. It's the same principle with horses. Don't reward anxious energy. Reward positive, focused energy!
3. Once a horse is focused and calm, begin using treats to train anything you want. But don't allow the other principles to slip out the window.
4. Use treats in a diminishing fashion. In other words. Don't use the same amount of treats for the same old simple task anymore. Ask for more focused effort before giving that amount again.
Let's take an example like teaching your horse to stand for mounting... If he moves, reset the boundaries. Reset the position. Once he's back in position, give him a treat. (as long as he's calm.) If he moves again. Repeat.
It may take a session or two before he really loves standing still for mounting. But by the third or fourth day you shouldn't be needing treats to get him to stand still. You can use them if you want, just don't use them every time. Don't teach your horse to assume he gets a treat for simple tasks once he's learned them. Teach him to hunt for treats by offering a more focused effort for new tasks.
In the beginning of any training program, I'll use treats often. But with my advanced horses, I'll will do a full 30 minute demonstration with just three or four treats in my pocket, to reward exceptional effort.
Of course, if you don't have treats, it doesn't mean you can't play with your horse. But don't get caught up thinking that you should always do work without treats. That's the evil part.
OK. I've gone to far!
Let me put it another way. If you don't want to use treats... don't. But you sure better find a way to balance out training and bonding with your horse. You sure better find another way to reward exceptional effort. Otherwise, you're not a trainer, your a slave driver.
Now I've really gone too far!
But it's the truth. And if you want to know the whole truth. There are only 4 ways to reward a horse and bond with them.
Here they are:
Why not use all four?
If you want to become a master horseman. You most definitely should learn to be effective with treats... and the other parts too.
Don't get caught up thinking a horse doesn't need treats for training. That thought deprives a horse of one of his favorite things. Which I believe is an evil thought in the long run. (see my definition of evil below)
Find a way to be a better leader! And remember... Treats don't make safe horses, but they can make a safe horse happier, if used correctly!
My definition of evil: harmful or tending to harm. (Turns out it's one of google's definitions too.)