Do you feed your horse too many treats?
Money can’t buy you love
Horses can be very food motivated. And using treats as a reward is sometimes a great approach to training. But I want to address another type of treat giving that is not always a good thing. Trying to buy your horses love with food.
There are many reasons people give their horses treats. Sometimes it is to distract or bribe them, sometimes it is because the horse is begging, sometimes it is because an owner wants their horse to like them. Some owners just constantly hand their horses food, because it seems to make the horse happy.
That is not to say I do not use treats as a reward or as an encouragement. But I do not give them for simply existing. It is not special that your horse doesn’t do bad things, that should be normal. It is not a reward unless there is something that your horse is doing above and beyond. Just being pretty or not killing you doesn’t count, and is not really treat worthy.
You can hand your horse a hundred carrots and he still will not look at you with respect and trust. It is not something a horse perceives as worthy of trusting their safety for. It is just something they want. Sort of like feeding me lots of chocolate, I love chocolate, but it has nothing to do with whether or not I respect or love the person handing it to me.
Treats can become an expectation from your horse. With the attitude of “Your job is to give me treats, or I will make a fuss”. Which eventually becomes the demand of “give me that good food or I will (enter something unpleasant here)” To a horse the reality of food is ultimately a survival need, and they will compete aggressively for it. If you throw a small pile of hay in a group of horses and watch what happens you can see “survival of the fittest” in action. The pecking order becomes clear fairly quickly. Usually involving some aggressive posturing, kicking and or biting. Ultimately one will get to eat first, the others will wait for whatever is left.
I understand the desire to want your horse to love you. When a horse and human have a connection, it is a beautiful thing to witness. Whether they are just playing around or hard at work, this connection is unmistakable and the envy of all who witness it. Especially those who do not have this type of relationship with their own horse. Developing this type of connection is a big part of training. It is a space of trust and respect that is mutual, and it is important in creating a positive learning environment.
From an outward perspective, horses love me. I have that “horse whispering” thing that seems magical and mysterious to many. The truth of the matter is that anyone can have that connection, if they are willing to take the time necessary to develop it. And it has nothing to do with food. It is an intricate dance of leading and following, much like a great waltz, with subtle silent conversations and a flow that is full of grace.
Developing this connection involves so much more than being the supplier of something that tastes good. It takes dedication and work and is not always easy. It involves establishing boundaries and sticking to them. You can love them with all your being, but if they do not believe you are the leader they need, they will not engage in the dance with you. That is the bottom line.
If you got into horses because you need an escape or a place to relax, you are going to be frustrated and unhappy. Horses require you to be 100% a leader, making the rules, holding them to it. Either you are the boss mare, or the protector stallion in their world or you are not worthy of their trust. In their world, you must be bad ass enough to run off the wolves or cougar that hides behind every bush. Which means if they can push you around you are not going to keep them safe. If being this strong-minded leader is not something you want to do, you either need to be willing to hire a full-time trainer that can be the leader on a consistent basis or find another hobby. Not to be harsh to those who use treats at all, but it is important to understand they do not buy you your horse’s love.
The cold hard truth about the social structure of the horse’s world is a reality that cannot be avoided, and it is the pivotal piece of making your equestrian experience a safe one.