Are you afraid of treats?
Do you fear that your horse cares more about the treats than he does about you?
Do you fear that your horse will become a “treat monster” if you use treats?
Do you fear that your horse will only do what you ask because of the treat?
As a I drive around the country to teach it is not unusual for me to meet people who are afraid of treats. Maybe they do not tell me that they are afraid of treats, but instead they just say “my horse can’t handle treats so we do not use them” while denying that the reason many people refuse to use treats is due to a fear of their own. Often these persons are not really aware themselves or they haven’t even considered doing something about this fear nor challenging it. The most common reasons behind this fear of the treat is either that people think the horses will care less about them and only care about the treats or that their horses will become monsters who ambush them to get a treat. I do not believe in any way that you could become less valuable to your horse just because you suddenly gives him something he really likes. What kind of horse would that be? Would you start caring less about your friend if he or she shared a piece of chocolate with you? If your horse wanted to spend time with you even before you started using treats then he sure still wants to now that he can have a lovely reward as well during training or playing. If he did not want to be with you in the first place or did not find amusement in the training, then what do you have to loose?
I want to ask you then… What is the alternative if you refuse to use treats and your horse is not happy to participate? That you need to pressure your horse into obeying? That your horse will not even glance at you when he has the opportunity to walk away? Does that make you feel more valued or loved? I guess that would not be the case and whether you decide to include treats in your training from now on or not, I suggest you to work on sorting out these fears within yourself. The fear of treats often doesn’t have anything to do with the treats themselves, but more often something to do with you and how you see yourself. What happen in most people when they talk about treats is something like; “What if the treats are more interesting than me? What if including treats makes my horse want me less and only the treats?“. Deep down this rarely has anything to do with the treats, but everything to do with the fact that you either do not think that YOU are good enough for your horse to want your company or that YOU do not even see yourself worthy of attention from others.
It might sound harsh, but the truth is that in my head it does not make sense to fear the treats nor their effect. That is also the reason why I have stopped believing that the treats are the problem, but only an object that awakes peoples inner fears and weaknesses. The fear of not being good enough. Haven’t we all been struggling with this at some point? Many horses become really engaged and motivated when treats are introduced in their training and from my point of view that is just one big advantage for all parties. The horse will have more fun and be more enthusiastic while you will suddenly be training a horse who actually think it is a pleasure (or an even bigger pleasure) to try to impress you or understand what you are asking. Also I have seen people introduce the treats for the simple reason to make their horses experience that training/playing IS fun because they weren’t motivated to give it a try previously.
Somehow it is like people think that using treats when training horses is a way of fooling their horses into engagement or attention, but the truth is that they are fooling no one but themselves. In my opinion treats work as motivation and praise which I can only see as a good thing. I do agree however that horses can become very obsessed with treats, but I have never experienced that to be a “horse problem”, but rather a “training problem” or a “human problem”. Working with treats take some work from you as a trainer because you need to teach your horse how to act around treats in a good way. If this important part of working with treats is skipped then I do agree that it can become almost dangerous or at least not very comfortable for any of you to use treats in training.
So how do I make sure that my horse knows how to act around the treats? The way I see it treats should always be given when both horse and rider are in a relaxed state of mind. That does not mean that the horse should be sleepy or tired, but simply meaning that the horse does not stress about the treat that is soon to be given. Therefore I want to share with you below the way I have introduced my horses to a calmer and more relaxed way of responding to treats.
- Take a treat and keep it in your closed hand
- Stretch forward your arm so that the horse has his neck stretched forward (not to the sides or in your pocket)
- Your horse might start to nuzzle (or even attempt to bite) your hand in order to get the treat
- Of course you should not get hurt, but you keep your hand closed and your arm stretched until your horse for any given reason looks away, stops trying to “steal” the treat or in any other way removes his focus from the treat
- In that instant moment you praise and give him the treat
- Repeat, repeat and repeat…
I have never so far met a horse who did not get the idea about acting this way around treats within a rather short time. Some get it within only 5-10 attempts and other might need to practice over a couple of days depending on how often you repeat this. Either way this is in my opinion a really nice way of teaching a calm and relaxed approach to the treats and it does not in any way involve pressure or punishment for the horse. All you need is a bag of treats and patience and you will already be on your way towards a much better relationship to the treats. On the way I do suggest however that you spend some time working on your thoughts about yourself because that has a big say in the respect as well. Spend some time allowing yourself to know that you are absolutely good enough as you are and that you are most certainly worthy of attention and love. The moment you start acknowledging this and find an inner peace within yourself on this matter, I can almost promise you that your horse will show you. He will praise you for finding grounding and self-love by giving you his attention in return. Accept it if your horse wants to take time to be alone and do not punish yourself by thinking that he walked away because you weren’t good enough. Maybe he just needed some time to think or a break from what you were doing?