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August 01, 2023
The argument for treats as rewards for horses, by Don Jessop
If you're a trainer that doesn't like to use treats with horse's I have two things to say, and they're both nice so don't worry.
First, it's okay. I understand why you don't promote treats. I've mapped out the hazards just like you. I'll get more into that in a minute. Second, do your thing. You must have some things figured out already. No judgement from me.
If you're someone who wants to use treats with horses, like me, there are some things you need to know. First of all, horses really only like nine things in life, specifically during training. That's it. Nine things total! Unlike people, who seem to like nine thousand things in every size and flavor, horses are simpler. Two of those are things are useful to know about but more for a long term training experience. That leaves seven things that horses like, which are useable as rewards in a moment to moment exchange. A treat reward is one of those seven things. As a professional, I'd hate to deprive you of that tool.
The nine things horses like during training are...
1. Release from pressure
2. Food rewards
3. Companionship with other horses
4. Soak time or rest time
5. Space/distance from pressure
8. Verbal praise
9. Memories of something easy and fun
Here are some important details for each of those nine things. Keep in mind... they aren't in any specific order. You could attempt to order them, only to find some horses prioritize their likes and dislikes differently.
1. Release from pressure.
This one is super basic. Pressure and release are the basis for almost all training modules across all species. This is as simple as applying a suggestion, supporting that suggestion with a rope, stick, reins, leg cue, etc., then releasing that suggestion. The horse learns that to do what you want, he simply has to respond to your pressure, or signal/support mechanism if you'd rather call it something else, because when he does, there is a release from that tension. We are all like that. We all move to the path of least resistance, just like everything in nature. So, naturally, when the pressure comes off, the horse feels better. It's a simple, important, magical understanding of basic principles.
2. Food rewards.
We could stop after this one, it's the whole premise of the article. But oh... there is so much more to learn. That's why horses are so exciting. Food rewards happen to be the most controversial reward across the whole spectrum of English, western, liberty, driving, or any other training discipline. I talk more about this in another article (To treat or not to treat). We know why it's so controversial. We've all seen enthusiastic horse owners get pushed and nibbled to an annoying, if not dangerous degree. We've all seen horses so distracted by the smell of a cookie, or crinkle of a wrapper that they lose all semblance of concentration. It's no wonder some trainers can't hack it when it comes to using treats. They can be a huge distraction. I heavily warn people about this distraction and go into more detail as to how to avoid it in my other articles. Simply put, don't give a treat to a horse that's "asking" for a treat. Why? Because you'll be rewarding him for asking for treats. Give the treat when he/she stops asking. Reward the energy you want, not the frantic "gimme, gimme, gimme" energy. And... you have to have the ability to say No! Search yourself for that ability and grow it.
In saying all that, horses love treats or food rewards. They are extremely valuable as a training tool. And there are dozens of ways to implement them safely and effectively for the best results. I'd like to show you those ways. Stay tuned for videos and more. Follow me on youtube, instagram, facebook and more. I'm a huge promoter of food rewards done right.
3. Companionship with other horses.
This is one of those long term things not as useful in the moment. We know horses love company, so it's useful as a reward to give them company. In the long term, if you plan right, companionship with other horses, for your horse, will enhance your own relationship with your horse too.
4. Soak time and rest time.
This one is part of the release from pressure mechanism but it get's it's own paragraph because I specifically denote "time." It's one thing to release the pressure from a leg cue as a reward for moving off your leg. It's a whole other thing to sit and let the horse soak on the exchange of information. This happens to be one of the most valuable and misunderstood and even underused training tools. People often get into too much of a hurry. It's useful to stop, let the horse soak on it for a while. Wait for a change in breathing, or a lick and chew, before you rush off to prove something.
5. Space or distance from pressure
Like "time," space also gets its own paragraph. Standing too close too your horse, or in another scenario, standing the horse too close to the scary thing, can still feel like pressure. Learning enough about the natural geometric, spatial needs of a horse will enhance your ability to make them feel safe or rewarded during a training exercise. Oh... we could go on, and we do in our Mastery classes. Want to deep dive with me? Learn more.
This is the other of the two long term strategies. It's fairly hard to reward your horse for a behavior by letting them head off and play with their friends. Usually, we're asking for tasks that demand concentration and deeper, more relaxed thoughts from the horse. However, there are a few moments in the early stages of training something new that "play" comes in pretty handy. Moments like when a horse explores a plastic tarp on the ground for the first time and instead of running away, begins to play with it, lifting it, biting it, pawing at it, you name it. Those are special moments in the early days. Perhaps not something you want the horse to do all the time, but something to consider as a reward long term and in some unique circumstances.
Nothing beats an itchy spot when it comes to rewards. Well, food rewards can, but sometimes not even food rewards beat a good itchy spot. I recommend finding those spots on your horses. It's magical when you do. In my mastery clinics I devote a whole twenty minute segment each day to something I call "dirty hands." Where we look for those spots on our horses. And, just for fun, the student with the horse that's the most expressive wins a prize. Soft grooming is also nice. A simple reassuring touch or brush can mean a lot to a slightly tense horse. You have to learn to read the moment. Sometimes they want space. Sometimes they want touch. Ironically, softly consoling a horse at the wrong time can have a reverse effect on their trust in you as a leader. (More to learn on that too.)
8. Verbal praise
Believe it or not, horses learn verbal commands and verbal rewards. They are associated to pressure and release and often coupled with other rewards and cues, but we'd be doing a disservice not to use verbal praise as a training tool. In part, in fact... in a huge part, they learn verbal cues due to the simple fact that horses feel our energy even when they don't yet understand our words. So, saying "thankyou" shifts your energy from an asking stance to a passive stance. It's noticeable, even to the auditors in my clinics when a student gives verbal praise. The student suddenly shifts from a critic to a friend. FYI... harsh words have the opposite effect.
9. Memories of something fun or easy.
This one makes the most sense in this context... Imagine your horse is good at something. Perhaps she just loves putting her front feet on the pedestal or pushing the ball across the arena. That task can be used as a reward. In other words, if you're attempting something challenging, something new, after you see some initial success, you could take the pressure off and go to something easier, something you know the horse loves to do. I don't employ this all the time, but it's an arrow in my quiver. Food for thought.
Now... wow!!! We made it through the wilderness with all that information.
Back to the premise of this article, "The argument for using treats with horses." Simply put... they love them! Why would I take away something they love? I can see limiting that thing to special occasions. I can see learning about timing and rewarding energy too, not just tasks. I can see the importance of boundaries and concentration. But I can also see the value of bonding with your horse using one of the most valuable, natural experiences in the world. Sometimes I simply stand at my horse's side after I throw out the hay for them to eat. I let them associate me, with their food. Sometimes I let them eat while riding too. Sometimes I open my hand to present a treat. All horses learn to respect my rules around treats very quickly. In my hands, all horses learn to shift their vibrations to a peaceful state regarding treats. They don't maul me, beg me, push me. They do ask, every horse asks, but they don't get treats just for asking.
In short. I argue for treats done properly. I see their value. I see the hazards. I can balance the two. Can you? Is it worth it to you to learn about using treats properly or would you prefer to simply avoid them? It's okay if you do avoid them. Lots of people do. No judgement from me. I only ask that you double down on the other reward systems. Don't be an over critical trainer that doesn't balance bonding with training. It should always be a 50/50 exchange. Too much bonding and horses never learn anything. Too much training and the horse learns tasks but also learns to resent them or you. Treats done right can help me keep it 50/50.
In full summary. Be open. Learn more. Grow. Dive deeper! I'm here to take that leap with you. Dive into the depths of horsemanship with me.
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