The horse–human relationship should be mutually pleasurable and rewarding.
You know it is mutual when a horse will leave other horses to be with you, even though you are not a horse; even though you bring no treats or feed; even though you may be carrying a halter or a rope or a saddle.
I have been blessed to share such a bond with a number of very special equines, beginning with my first pony, Beauty. Beauty came into my life when I was nine years old and she was five. Quite a few people commented that Beauty treated me like I was her foal. I don't know about that and I recall actually not liking it when they said it, because I preferred to think that I was in charge! But whatever her motivation, Beauty clearly returned the love and devotion I felt for her. We spent hours and hours just hanging out together. Sometimes there was activity like grooming or riding or teaching her tricks. Other times I just lay on the ground and watched her graze, fascinated by the way she used her top lip to brush the dust from every tuft of grass before biting it off. While I lay there, she stayed close to me the whole time, even though there was plenty of grass elsewhere in her paddock.
Did I feed her treats? Yes, sometimes I would pull a particularly succulent bunch of kikuyu grass on the way to her paddock and feed it to her when I arrived. Other times I would just arrive. Sometimes I would give her a carrot or maybe an apple core and I used to add kitchen scraps to her feed ration, but I did not use food to motivate her to perform.
For example, I thought it would be fun to teach Beauty simple tricks like counting and shaking hands. These things are easy for even a child to visualise, so I had a clear picture in my mind of exactly what I wanted her to do and how it would look.
To actually teach my pony to shake hands, I began by applying a bit of pressure to the back of her right fetlock, and then lifting her foot as if I was going to pick it out. Next, I looped a rope around her fetlock, stood in front of her, said "shake hands" and gently tugged on the rope. This was repeated until she figured out that I wanted her to move her foot. When she did, I dropped the rope and gave her praise and caresses. Repeat. Beauty caught on very quickly until she raised her foreleg forwards and close enough for me to touch it briefly. Much lavish praise and an end to the lesson. As you can see in the photo above, after just a few trick training sessions, Beauty became a willing hand shaker!
There are endless things you can teach a horse and in my experience, all of them can be accomplished quickly and successfully through a kind and logical process of:
Accordingly, I do not advocate feeding treats as a reward during basic training. For one thing, your horse is not a dog and is not motivated to perform in the same way. Furthermore, the over-use of treats can lead the horse to expect and then demand them, including under circumstances where it is inconvenient or unprofessional to provide them. For instance, you do not want your horse searching your pockets or whipping his head around for a little snack when you are in the show ring! At the more dangerous end of the spectrum, the constant and indiscriminate feeding of treats can lead horses to nip or bite from a sense of frustrated entitlement.
Please do not think that treats will make your horse love you. Horses love other horses and they even love stable mates like cats, dogs and goats, none of whom ever feed them treats. In the same way, just as Beauty did with me, they will value the bond of companionship and teamwork they share with you far more than a piece of carrot or apple, but only when you have earned that bond by providing companionship, leadership and fun together.
Treats do have their place, especially if the horse earns them or as a nice surprise, but if care is not exercised, feeding treats will actually make your horse disrespect you. He is too big and potentially dangerous for that, so make a treat an occasional event. And if you put that carrot in the manger instead of hand feeding it, your horse will love you just as much and respect you more.
Do you have a story or an opinion about feeding treats to horses? Please share in the comments section.
Some of the above text is taken from my book. Click here to find out more. (Chapter 7, Teaching to Learn is especially relevant.)