By Sue De Laurentis
We think it's possible!
If it eats, it can be trained! Yes,
you can use treats both effectively and responsibly with
horses. Using horse treats as a training tool can be effective to shape desired behaviors yet maintain a horse’s good manners.
Usually folks use treats for two reasons, training and because it makes us feel good. Using treats does have a bad rap in some corners but mostly because there are not many who teach exactly how and why to use them.
Horses can be taught to expect treats for performance on cue or in other words by receiving a signal or word. To prove this, just try unwrapping a peppermint or cutting an apple into pieces prior to feeding it to your horse. We promise he will expect to get his treat when the horse hears wrapper opened or the apple is cut in just a couple of repetitions!
Most expert animal trainers use a diminishing reward system and so do we. This means as a behavior or response becomes reliable we gradually diminish the number of treats we use and transfer to friendly stroking, positive verbal praise or an intermittent treat. In the beginning treats can be dispensed more often as the horse is encouraged and rewarded. We are instilling a new response mechanism in which the treat, given even occasionally is the “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Teach Your Horse Reward Basics
The success of any reward system depends on your:
Teach your horse first what verbal praise is about. Choose the word or very short phrase that you will use as a praise word. We use “good” or “good boy/girl”. When spending time with your horse, stroke his neck and tell him “good boy.” Make it clear through your touch and tone of your voice that your intention is to praise. Repeat this sequence often and if you can associate it with a good behavior he offers, that’s even better.
“Good boy” will become a bridge signal and will be used to both reward him verbally and to let him know a treat is coming. Itbridges the few seconds of time between his response and the actual giving of the treat. The treat must be forthcoming in three seconds or less and the sequence must always be the same.
We use “cookie time” immediately following the bridge signal to let the horse know that he is getting a food treat and to invite him into our space to accept it.
When your horse has given an approximation of a behavior you have asked for, immediately say “good boy,” pause a second and immediately give the signal “cookie time” and give him a treat…within three seconds. Do this intermittently for a day or two over multiple short sessions.
Build on Successes
We teach new behaviors by breaking them into very small increments and use the treat sequence when he at least tries to respond. As his understanding is established, reward only for improvement. As his response becomes more reliable, begin to praise him with your voice accompanied by stroking and begin to decrease frequency of the food treats. Use small pieces so they can be chewed quickly.
If your horse starts to get in a hurry for a
treat, try walking away for a few minutes and pay him no
attention. His success and good manners will depend on your
You may easily correct a horse that mugs for food by
spritzing a little juice from a small piece of lemon in the direction of his nose. Your horse should come into your space only when invited with the “cookie time” cue.
Just one spritz of lemon juice a couple of feet from
this horse’s nose was all it took to help her keep her space.
Mounted moves can be easily shaped using treats as a reward. More on that later.
Learn more in our latest book "The Trick Horse Companion".