If it eats, it can be trained! Yes, you can use treats both effectively and responsibly with horses. Using 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.”
In Trick Training we create Behavior Chains which means linking moves together. One of the goals of a variable reward system is to be able to reward the horse at the end of several moves. An example would be for a horse to Step Up (on the pedestal, Salute with left leg, Salute with right leg, pivot the hind end around the front that is still anchored on the pedestal and then reward the horse. This happens over a period of time, to be determined by the individual progress of the horse.
The success of any reward system depends on your delivery, timing and consistency. 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. It bridges 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.
You may also use “cookie time” as 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. Never give a food treat without the verbal cue!
When your horse has given an approximation of a behavior you have asked for, immediately say the CUE word and give him a treat…within three seconds. Do this intermittently for a day or two over multiple short sessions.
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 consistent performance.
If a horse gets food treats for reasons other than training, it may be best to feed them in a bucket however using treats as a training tool is an entirely different manner and they will usually be fed by hand.
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.