Friday, June 19, 2009

To treat or not to treat?

I was listening to horse radio today at work when they had a great interview with trainer Julie Goodnight. Though I am not a die hard fan of any one natural horsemanship trainer or method I do like the trend towards gentler methods of horse training-using brains over bronze. I thought she sounds like someone I would like to look into more. She doesn’t promote any gadgets or games (at least not in the interview) she seemed down to earth and full of common sense. What I find appealing.

We do disagree so far on one subject though…Julie Goodnight adamantly opposes giving treats. As I understand it she believes that giving food from the hand is compromising your dominant standing in you and your horse’s relationship. Her explanation was simple and satisfying. Horses show dominance in the control of resources. We all know more dominant horses take food away from less dominant animals. She explains that allowing horses to take food from us is giving them the wrong idea. This I thought was a valid explanation for the camp of horse people against giving horses treats. I have heard since I was a small child that giving ponies food from your hand will make that pony a biter. We were never allowed to give biters food from our hands at my childhood barn as it was thought to encourage them. I think it probably does.

I am a reluctant treat-er. I believe that giving treats to horses “for no reason” could very well encourage aggressive behaviors. I also agree “in your pocket” horses are not cute they are a biter waiting to happen. I do not think that giving your horse a treat as a reward however is the same thing as giving him treats randomly or because he is a “pretty boy”.

My reasoning is this; Treats given as rewards for desired behaviors become reinforces. They are a training tool just as much as your reins and your spurs are. When you stop squeezing your legs when your horse moves forward that is negative reinforcement. Most of our training uses this method. You take away a stimulus that is unpleasant when the horse exhibits a positive behavior. Giving a food reward when you horse gets in a trailer is a positive reinforcer. You give something pleasant to a horse when he exhibits a behavior you desire. If your reward is appropriately timed it will almost guarantee that the behavior will become more frequent. Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing. It is how Shamoo and most other wildlife actors learn. We train dogs this way-even though they also display dominance by taking food from subordinates.

I trained Bodhi to load into the trailer using positive reinforcement. I first taught him to target (touch a specific point with his nose). I then taught him to walk into the trailer following his target. No whips no pulling and you should have seen the look of amazement when he looked up to see himself in the trailer and that it wasn’t that scary after all! I feel like positive reinforcement using food should be separated in horse people’s minds from treats. I am not so sure I agree with treats but I think that positive reinforcement is a great tool for a trainer’s tool box and should not be over looked because of the stigma attached with treating.

Bodhi was a biter when I got him. In fact he bit my husband the first time I went to look him. I decided through a lot research to try treats as a training tool anyways. Is he stilly mouthy? Yes. But he has gotten much better not worse as would be predicted by the absolutely no hand feeding crowd.

Going to look at Sasha the hafllinger tomorow!!!


  1. I think giving treats really depends on the horse, and on how you do it. It can encourage pushiness in an already dominant horse, but it can also help a timid or unengaged horse realize that you might be a source of something good.

    The main rule I have is to pay attention and really try to listen to what the horse is telling me!

  2. I like that Kate. Each horse is an individual and a good trainer treats each horse differently according to their individual needs. Making vast generalizations about horses just prompts them to prove us wrong sometimes I think!