Pros and cons of using treats for training your horse
To treat or not to treat, that is the question. Some people love using treats, and others believe it can create horses that are more focused on the reward than on the performance. I am going to shed some light on the pros and cons of using treats. Pros and cons do exist. In short, some horses are better when you don't use treats, but the majority of horses do well with them. Your approach often creates the horse's positive or negative response.
More and more equestrians are using treats in performance training. I use treats for performance training here at Dances with Horses following the Resnick Method. I like to joke that our horses believe that dressage is something to eat rather than a training method. Of course, that is silly. Our horses would quit performing if that were true. The message I want to impart is that a horse can be motivated through treats. So far, it would appear that all in all, treats are a good thing. Here are some of the reasons why.
Treats are an enjoyable way to socialize a horse and to have a more willing attitude for training. When introduced properly, treats create trust and cooperation between a horse and the trainer. It is the nature of horses in the wild to communicate through food sharing; thus, a horse learns much faster using treats as a communication aid. It is also a good ice breaker and attention getter when beginning the training session for the same reason.
Treats get the digestive juices flowing, which creates endorphins that give the horse a sense of well being and a positive connection with his trainer. Rewarding the horse for what he learns causes the horse to focus more on the trainer's directions. It is a great communication tool. Using treats helps guide a horse to understand when he achieves the performance you are directing him to. The horse learns to enjoy his performance because it is rewarded, and soon after that, the performance itself becomes the reward.
Working for treats develops the horse's IQ as he has to figure out how to give the right response to get one. Treats speed up the process because they engage the horse to take part in his training.
Now, let's look at the negative side of using treats.
It takes skill to connect with a horse using treats. If introduced in the wrong way, it can bring out destructive behaviors and mess up a horse.
Horses can be aggressive around food if not managed appropriately. If your horse believes it took the treat away from you, the horse will lose respect and see you lower in the pecking order. When a horse moves a horse away from a grazing spot, he loses his or her rank. Because of this, it can create aggressive behavior. A horse with this attitude towards the trainer will not pay attention and will lose interest in learning or performing. Additionally, they can lose the training you have already put into them so far.
For horses on restricted diets, treats can cause weight gain. It can also cause a horse to become picky over their usual ration of food. A horse could stop performing if it thinks it is not going to get a treat. When the horse has had enough treats, it may lose interest as well. Everything you do must be monitored to achieve good results using treats, but this is also true with any form of training.
Treats can create biting (accidental or with intention), begging, and pushy habits.
Another con of feeding treats is if you immediately feed the horse as soon as he performs, it can develop a rushy horse that performs when you don't ask him to and then demands a treat. If this happens, the tables have turned, and you will feel you need to give your horse a treat. If you do, your horse will be training you.
What to avoid when using treats
One myth is that horses have short memories and need treats immediately. This popular approach should be avoided in many cases and can cause unwanted behaviors, even for professionals. I want to clear up this idea that the horses always need the treat Immediately. The opposite is true. Let me explain further.
Simple outline for using treats
The first thing to understand is to never be in a hurry to do anything around a horse. Don't let a horse have the treat if he or she is rude, in a hurry reaching out, appears angry receiving the treat, grabs the treat out of your hand, or is not relaxed. To overcome these behaviors, only treat when your horse will stand quietly and is calm and relaxed. Wait him out; it is worth the wait.
Again, I want to emphasize, take your time, and do not be in a hurry. For a while, train with and without treats to know what works best. Use treats when you get good results and don't use them in the times that you don't. The intermittent practice of using treats works well with horses that benefit from using treats. The reason you would do this is that it keeps the horse more engaged. It would help if you also mixed it up, so the horse does not develop unwanted behaviors or become bored. The response of your horse will vary daily.
I choose to feed treats periodically. When my horse is least expecting treats, it boosts my horse's interest taking it to the next level of training. There is a process to follow as the horse progresses in it's training when using treats. When a horse is learning something new, we give treats for each effort. As training progresses, reduce the use of treats by not treating every time for the same trick. After that, offer a treat randomly.
Stop using treats after the horse has learned what you were teaching. If you keep using treats at that point, your horse will lose interest.
Take time to consider the kind of treats you choose for training. If you have a horse that is not interested in food, pick a treat that is your horse's favorite food to create more interest. Give your horse treats for a while before you begin training each day so he will be engaged enough to work with you.
If you have a very motivated horse, select a type of food that slows your horse down. You might choose a small amount of hay that has little sugar, like teff or oat hay. I like to have an assortment. If my horse does something difficult, I give him a large hand full of his favorite treat. If I treat my horse for something he already knows, I will offer a pinch of a lesser quality reward. But don't tell him I told you that.
There it is, all the pros and cons to help empower your approach to using treats. I hope this info will help you avoid or remove your horse's adverse behaviors while using treats. To know when to treat or not to treat is the trick in training your horse. Happy Halloween.
If you want to know more, we have a Liberty training course that teaches the proper use of treats. If you have any questions, I will respond to you in the comment section below. Thank you for reading. May the spirit of the bond be with you. From these blogs, we intend to bring a Better Deal for Horses. Enjoy!