You’ve just finished your ride and your horse was excellent. What better way to reward him than to grab a peppermint out of the treat container and feed it to him? Giving treats as reward (or bribery!) is a popular practice among equestrians, but you’ll also find some people who are firmly in the “no-treat” camp. Which side do you stand on?
Positive reinforcement goes a long way when it comes to training animals. Just as you would work with a dog using training treats, many riders will also use treats for this purpose with their horses. Many horses are food motivated, making it easy to instill good behavior.
Others will take the “pro treat” position because of dietary needs. If a horse is a particularly picky eater, sometimes hiding supplements or medication inside a treat is the best way to administer. In fact, many supplements are offered in treat form specifically designed for convenience and picky eaters.
Treats can also be used to establish a relationship with a new horse. Some horses who are coming off of the racetrack are unfamiliar with treats, so introducing them is one way to establish that rapport. Trust is an ever important element of any equine relationship, and treats can be used as a bridge to get to that point of necessary trust.
If you have a horse who is difficult to catch in the pasture, having a treat handy can often help cut down the time you would otherwise be taking chasing him in circles. If a horse is food-motivated, catching him in the pasture is theoretically easier with treats.
Those in the “anti treat” camp will say that giving treats damages the relationship of respect between horse and rider. If a horse is mouthy or pushy on the ground, the expectation of a treat can exacerbate the issue. Even horses who are not mouthy to begin with can learn to do so if they know a treat is forthcoming. This can become an issue if not addressed, as an ill-mannered horse on the ground is not anyone’s favorite to work with.
Others will say that a horse does not possess the memory retention ability to know what it is they are being rewarded for, therefore they simply view the human as a “pez-dispenser” who administers tasty tidbits at random. Of course, many horses will learn that certain behaviors (or tricks, as we would call them) will lead to treats, but this can also lead to more pushy behavior on the ground.
If a horse is constantly expecting a treat on the ground, the additional issue of this expectation interfering with the horse’s ability to stand still arises. For example, if your horse is having farrier or vet work done but finds it difficult to stand still because it is searching pockets for treats, he will quickly move toward the bottom of your farrier/vet’s list of favorite horses to work with!
Whichever side of the debate you may reside on, it’s always imperative to remember that horses need to have leadership in their lives. You as the rider are the authority in this relationship, and your horse’s personality can determine the affect giving treats will have. As horsemen, it’s our responsibility to monitor our horses’ behavior and determine what is the best way to enforce behavior.
So, we ask you: what side of The Great Treat Debate are you on?