Natural Horse World

Treats – it’s not just about the food!

Guest post by Mel Fleming of Connecting with Horses and Riding with Syncronicity

Mel Fleming & foal
Mel Fleming & foal

I have been experimenting with using treats for a couple of years now and have found them to be really helpful. Before that, I was not a fan of treats.

Of course they have to be used in a savvy way. I use a marker signal to tell the horse the exact moment they find the right answer, or are getting closer to it.
When they put in a great effort or execute any behaviour I really like, then the treat follows the marker signal.

Horses must learn to take the treat with manners.  It actually teaches them a lot of discipline to take treats politely.
At first they can get over-excited or even aggressive, so it can take a little time before the treats work well for some, but the process involved with that is actually very beneficial to the horse and the whole relationship.

I try to incorporate positive reinforcement as much as possible and minimise negative reinforcement (using discomfort with phases or negative consequences) as much as I can. However I still use some negative reinforcement, like in this video where Arumi repeatedly walks into my space and I put a big wave of energy in the lead rope.

Using treats is not about the food. The important thing is the gratitude we show them when they try or put in a great effort.
That’s what matters most to the horses.
The fact that we stop and appreciate what they have done and we say ‘thank you’ is the key thing.

The food can really emphasize this as it causes us to stop and not ask straight away for something else. If we mechanically or robotically give food it can mean nothing to the horse. I have seen this happen and it wasn’t until the owner actually told the horse how great she was, that the horse was motivated and felt inspired to try and put in more effort.

Even though I say that it is not about the food, it’s actually a great motivator.
Most humans are motivated by food. We love great food and look forward to occasions where there’ll be nice food.
Food and eating effects the brain and releases endorphins, so it can cause horses (and us) to feel better about situations we may not feel so good about.

I have seen treats help horses that were anxious, introverted or fearful make big shifts. I have seen it inspire ‘shut down’ school horses that no longer wanted to participate. I have seen it help emotional horse be calm when they were reinforced for relaxation.

Of course treats will never replace good horsemanship – to me that is being calm, clear, centered and understanding all aspects of the horse, and reading the horse accurately.
Food reinforcers are what I refer to as extrinsic motivators (even though via the release of endorphins they can have intrinsic motivation as well). Extrinsic motivation will never outweigh (not in the long term anyway) intrinsic motivation which is the good feeling that we have on the inside.

Arumi gymnastic jumping.

I try to explain it like this to my students.
Extrinsic motivation is like the pay cheque, while intrinsic motivation is the feeling we have about our work.  We feel good when we’re appreciated, comfortable, and are supported or contributing in some way.
Or we are intrinsically un-motivated when we feel unappreciated or highly stressed, bored and un-stimulated at work.
We might have a very high paying job, but if it’s an extremely high stress job, we will eventually most likely leave it and look for another  job even if it pays less, because the pay cheque is not worth the stress that comes with it.

To me intrinsic motivation for the horse is the feeling of love and connection, appreciation, mental and physical stimulation.  It’s the good feeling of moving and having energy flow through their body when they move in a healthy biomechanical way.
If these aren’t present, food treats as motivators will only last for a short while if at all.

To me, using food treats is like the icing on the cake – you have to make a great cake first, but a great cake can be even better with some icing.
These are my current thoughts, however I will explore anything that creates more positive goodwill and connection with our horses.

There is a great book I can highly recommend on the subject by Karen Pryor called ‘Reaching the Animal Mind’. You can also read more about my journey of finding ways to motivate horses here. 

3 thoughts on “Treats – it’s not just about the food!”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thought-provoking post on treats and their significance beyond just the food aspect. It’s fascinating to explore the various ways in which treats can contribute to the overall well-being and relationship between humans and horses.

    You eloquently highlighted the importance of the non-food aspects of treats, such as the opportunity they provide for positive reinforcement, bonding, and communication with our equine companions. Treating horses goes far beyond offering them a tasty snack; it becomes a means of building trust, reinforcing good behavior, and deepening the human-horse connection.

    While discussing the impact of treats on horses, it’s worth mentioning the concept of hot horse and the importance of considering individual temperaments and dietary needs. Some horses may have a more excitable disposition, and certain food ingredients can potentially contribute to increased energy levels. Understanding the specific needs of each horse is crucial when selecting treats to ensure they align with their overall dietary and behavioral requirements.

  2. Lisa Phillips

    I would like to start some trick training with my laminitic horse who is also prone to be overweight! What treats can I use for this?

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