To horses, a treat is not a bribe unless you use it as one. I see it as a reward, or payment for a job well done. It offers incentive for the horse to earn more and they look forward to their work when payment is forthcoming.
Giving a horse a treat just as that – you’re thanking them for giving their time to join in with your games or a job that needs doing.
How many times would we turn up for work if we didn’t get paid?
Some of us do voluntary work and enjoy praise and recognition as a reward – something common to predators such as humans and dogs.
Horse however, are prey animals and for them reward is release of pressure or being left alone altogether, along with being able to eat. When a horse satisfies its basic requirements of safety, comfort and play then it wants to eat, so rewarding a horse with food shows us the horse is relaxed and comfortable about what we’ve been asking. A tense uptight horse will refuse to eat, even special treats, when its mind is focusing on survival.
Giving your horse a treat for a job well done, is a bit like taking your friend out for lunch because you just love their company or when you want to thank them for something.
We don’t see someone paying for our lunch as a bribe, unless there’s something seriously wrong with the relationship.
Likewise, we couldn’t expect our friend to keep turning up to help dig postholes, chop wood or cart hay if we didn’t give them some sort of treat in return.
Sure, we’d thank them the first time, but unless we gave them a treat (beers, money, help in return) would they keep coming back for more hard work?
That’s what we’re asking of our horses when we train or ride them, time after time.
Giving your horse a treat is a bit like inviting your friend to lunch, or to stay for a beer and BBQ, or offering your help in return for theirs. And so it should be with our horses if we want a fair and equitable relationship.
When horses are fed treats as a reward, even randomly, they will line up to see who gets to play with their ‘leader’ today. They will offer behaviours they’ve learned to see if that will earn them some pay, and are keen to learn new ones to get more pay.
Some people see giving a horse treats as dangerous and inviting pushy behaviour.
Of course it will result in that if you haven’t set boundaries and if your timing is off when giving the treat.
Clicker trainers are the ones to learn from here – they know how to stop horses mugging them by waiting for the appropriate behaviour before the food is given.
That behaviour could be backing or turning their head away, or just staying out of your personal space before the treat is delivered.
Learning how to deliver the treat (and when to wait), is as important as recognising the behaviour you want to reward. That’s why clicker people use an audible ‘click’ signal to mark the behaviour – “it says yes that’s what I want” – and then delivering the small food reward such as few grains of oats or sunflower seeds or pellets, or tiny cubes of carrot or apple.
The behaviour the horse does when it receives the reward is as important as the one it got the click for. If you allow the horse to thrust its nose into your space and demand the treat, it will very soon realise this gets it the treat quicker.
That’s when mugging starts.
All you have to do is wait until the horse turns its head away, backs up a bit, or lowers it’s head (whatever behaviour you deem as safe) before giving the treat. Your horse will then remain respectful of your space and not demand the treat.
In the beginning, especially if you’re correcting already learned mugging behaviour, its best to position yourself on the other side of the fence or stall door so you can move out of reach if the horse persists with mugging. Then just wait – most likely the horse will quit trying and move away to do something else or get distracted and look elsewhere, and this is when you can safely deliver the treat.
They very quickly link their behaviour with food deliverance and will then offer that readily, to get he treat quicker after you have signalled a ‘yes’.
All my horses have had some basic ‘clicker training’ to help with their respect around food and treats.
As they receive these randomly, but reasonably often, they remain keen and interested in coming when called, being haltered or going to do something.
They are happy to be rewarded for hoof trimming at liberty, going on the horse float or at the end of a ride.
I believe it’s important to ask “What’s in it for them” – and to enhance the release of pressure with a reward (food or itching them) so your relationship is one of love and fun for both of you.
PS – Feed treats from your horse’s regular grain ration (so you don’t overfeed) but if your horse is overweight or prone to laminitis, the safest treat is sunflower seeds which are low in sugar. Carrots are very high in sugar so only use them as ‘jackpot’ treats every once in a while.