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Do treats spoil a horse?

From: Lisa

Dear Jessica,

Hello and I hope this letter finds you well and happy. My question involves a 6 yr old Thoroughbred gelding. What I would like to know is: What is your take with using treats as positive reinforcement in training? I have found that I could get my horse to bow, go in hand over a practice wooden bridge and know what "good boy" means by giving him a carrot or peice of pepermint candy. I understand that he is not a dog by any means, but he seems to respond with this method. For example, after one very rotten training ride he did not get his "reward" after the ride. The next day he was much better and got his "Good Boy" and his treat. I also noticed that he gets tense and grinds his teeth if my instructor rides him, but doesn't do that when I ride him. I take that as .."she REALLY makes me work" and "my mommie is a push over". Does that mean he can reason between work and reward when it comes to different riders? Or does that mean he just doesn't like to have to honestly work under someone who can make him?

I'm new to English riding and have owned my horse for almost a year. I bought him from the owner of the barn I work for. He is a retired race horse so we are both green. He has never bucked or reared, he is a honest jumper and is going quite well with Dressage WHEN he wants to work for us. I do not jump him, but a young experienced rider schooled him over jumps during the summer and now he has a new rider for jumping. ( both my horse and the rider jump under lessons only ).

I feel we started him fairly for coming off the track. He got 3 months rest then another 3 months working only on the ground, then very light saddle work and then progressed to light jumping and Dressage over the summer. Treats started before I even bought him last February. I've been voice and treat rewarding him since he come come from the track last October (before I knew I was to buy him..I spoil our babies that come home for the winter..ALL of them). Did I do wrong? Am I spoiling my horse without knowing it? He does'nt get pushy or bite, He never knows for sure if he will get a treat or not at any given time, unless he worked well under saddle or on the ground.

Thank you for your time, I hope I didnt sound like a complete horse-idiot Lisa


Hi Lisa! There is nothing wrong with giving a horse treats, just as there is nothing wrong with giving a dog or a child treats - if you are sensible about the treats and how you give them.

Horses can and should be trained to accept treats gently and politely, without pushing, shoving, grabbing, or biting. Most horses will learn, very quickly, what sort of treat-taking behaviour is acceptable. A few horses do not seem to be able to understand or remember that pushing and grabbing is unacceptable, and those horses should not be HAND-FED treats. It doesn't mean that you can't give such a horse a treat, only that if your horse tends to "mug you" for treats, it's wiser and safer to drop the carrot or apple or sugar into the horse's feedbox and let him retrieve it.

Treats can be a part of training. Treats aren't bribes - you have to remember that horses, unlike children, cannot be told "You will get a treat provided that you do this"; instead, you can teach a horse, through consistent rewarding, to expect a treat after performing a certain action. It's a distinction with a very important difference.

A horse with good manners about accepting treats won't understand that the treat is connected to whatever it did - but it will understand that the treat implies that you are pleased with it. A horse that understands that it must not crowd into your space and body-search you, but waits politely to be given a treat, is a horse that can be hand-fed treats.

A horse without manners about accepting treats is often a horse that has been hand-fed treats by someone who didn't understand horses very well, and who allowed the horse to pester, to push, to poke at pockets and hands, and to "find" the treat and demand it. That's a very effective way to create a horse that crowds, bites, and loses respect for the personal space of humans - and that's not a good thing. One reason to teach a horse how to accept treats politely is that, humans being humans, someone is bound to offer your horse a treat at some point during its life, even if you make it a policy to avoid offering treats. When that happens, the human and your horse will both be safer and happier if your horse has learned "treat etiquette".

The "treat training" you've described is basic operant conditioning based on learning by association. You've used a treat (something your horse likes very much) to teach your horse that "good boy", the words you use when you offer the treat, means "I am showing good will." It doesn't necessarily convey "I am pleased with you" - and it does NOT convey "I enjoyed our ride." A reward after a ride isn't very meaningful - to you, it may mean "I liked my ride"; to the horse, it may simply mean "Yes, the ride really IS over now", or even more simply "Here is something good to eat". By the time a ride is over, the horse won't connect the treat with anything that happened on the ride. If you gave the horse a smack instead of a treat, it wouldn't connect the smack with anything that happened on the ride, either. It WOULD connect the treat, or the smack, to whatever it happened to be doing when you gave it the treat or the smack. Thus, you might offer the horse a cookie or a whack in the side after your ride, and even though you might think that this would show the horse what you thought of the ride, the horse will see your action as a consequence of whatever he is doing at that very moment. In other words, if your horse is trying to rub his itchy head on your arm, and you give him a whack on the neck, he will think "Ow, rubbing caused a bad noise and a bad feeling in my neck." If he could intellectualize it, he would think "This action had unpleasant consequences." If your horse is trying to rub his itchy head on your arm, and you give him a treat, he will think "This is a great thing to do, I must do it again right now" - in other words, "This action has enjoyable consequences."

If you want to refine the action/consequence or action/reward sequence, you might want to try clicker training with your horse. You'll find details and other references to clicker training in the HORSE-SENSE archives, and if it interests you, you'll want to read the book "Clicker Training Your Horse" by Alexandra Kurland. Clicker training can help you refine your communication and your timing, so that you can make it very clear to your horse exactly which of his actions you like. By teaching the horse that the "click" sound means "Good, you're doing well, I approve", you can help your horse understand exactly what you want him to do. For instance, you mentioned crossing a practice wooden bridge. Most horses, when first introduced to such a bridge, will stop and stare, reach out their necks and heads to sniff the bridge, put one foot on it, take the foot off again, stand for a moment, put the foot back on, and then - if all is calm and the bridge doesn't sound or feel too scary - put a second foot on it. At that point, the horse may or may not go across the bridge. All of this, or some variation on this, will typically happen within a minute or less. Even if you have wonderful timing, it's likely that you won't be indicating your approval at exactly the right moments. If the horse knows that the "click" sound (or your voice saying "good boy") means approval, then you can "click" when he reaches toward the bridge, when he puts his nose on it, when he puts his foot on it, etc. When he moves backward or hesitates, you can simply wait and do nothing. Since a well-timed "click" (or "good boy") is both informative and reassuring, a horse trained this way will typically go over the bridge fairly quickly and very calmly - and be perfectly happy to do it again.

Your other question is more difficult to answer - I'll just say that your horse should not be tense or grinding his teeth during any lesson or riding session. Horses, like humans, need to be relaxed and feel secure to learn their lessons well, and a horse or a human that is tense, irritated, annoyed, and/or frightened is not going to be able to learn or develop in a useful way. Horses are quite happy to work if the work is understandable and doesn't hurt them, and if the person asking them to work is nice about it - even if the work is hard. Horses are NOT happy to work if they are uncomfortable or frightened, and anyone who thinks that training consists of forcing a horse to work needs to take up another hobby, preferably one involving inanimate objects rather than living creatures. "Honest work" isn't something horses avoid - it's something they enjoy. When they don't enjoy it, something is wrong - with the trainer, with the conditions of work, or with the work itself. Horses respond differently to different riders, because different riders act differently and provoke different reactions. But the horse's reactions don't have anything to do with work/reward issues - any rider who understands horses and is reassuring and fair will almost invariably elicit a positive response from a horse. Treats and a kind word and a pat are all things that can make a horse's work more pleasant - as appreciation can make ANY individual's job more pleasant - and there is nothing at all wrong with making a horse's work pleasant.

In fact, there is a great deal wrong with the idea that a horse's job doesn't have to be pleasant. It should be. It can be complicated, it can be difficult, it can be physically demanding, but whether the "job" is carrying handicapped riders in an arena, participating in 100-mile endurance rides, or doing a third-level dressage test, it should always be something that the horse enjoys.

Finally, you've answered your own question. Your horse doesn't bite, isn't pushy, doesn't demand treats, doesn't even expect to get treats all the time - you've just described a horse that is definitely NOT spoiled. Stop worrying. You're doing a good job. ;-)

Jessica

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