My Thoughts On Treats and Hand Feeding

Every time you interact with your horse, you are teaching him how to behave. The saying, “what you allow, will continue” is so very, very true. It doesn’t matter what you do with your horse, if you allow a behavior either consciously or unconsciously, it will continue. If you allow a horse to be distracted, they will continue to be distracted. If you allow a horse to push you around, they will continue to push you around. If you allow a horse to ignore your requests under saddle, that will continue.

I see a lot of people who love to give their horses treats. I’m not against treats, I have bags full of treats in my tackroom and trailer, what I am against is how people give treats. I look at treats like money. If everytime I see someone I hand them $5, they will get to liking me really quickly. They will look forward to seeing me because they get money! But what will start to happen, is they will expect that they get money from you every time. Pretty soon, the novelty of the $5 is no longer good enough, so they will want $10. Long story short, they become greedy for money and if they don’t get it, they become rude and resentful really quickly.

But, money is not the evil. The evil is the way you give the money. If you changed how you gave money, you will soon get a different result. If instead you gave someone money for their efforts, say a hard days work, a good deed, or in appreciation of their efforts toward you, now you have rewarded good behavior. Now, you have people motivated to do something good to get a reward.

Horses operate just the same. So many people give their horses treats without regard to what they are rewarding. Initially the horse may be polite about the cookie you gave, but over time develops behavior that is unbecoming. A horse might nudge you and you give him a treat because he’s “cute”. A horse might paw the ground, and you give him a treat because he “really wants a cookie”.

Food rewards are the best reward with positive reinforcement training, the most common form is clicker training. Every time you give a piece of food, you are rewarding the behavior prior to giving the food. Now instead of giving food when your horse is being “cute”, give him some food when he’s being polite and not begging. Give your horse a treat when he’s done a great job doing a particular task. Or, if you really want to give a treat, put it in his bucket in his stall.

In summary, the food, just like money is not the problem. The problem is using the food to reward undesirable behavior. Remember, what you allow and reward will continue.

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