Blog Tales from the LOPE Ranch

Hand Feeding Treats — Why We Don’t Do It

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There are many thoughtful articles about hand feeding treats and how it harms the horse-human relationship. I have listened to many top horsemanship experts repeatedly advise against the practice during their clinics and seminars. In the past, I also have hand fed treats to my horses and suffered serious consequences before finally realizing that my horsemanship was sadly lacking (and failing my horses in the process).

Instead of rehashing all of that in a lengthy post, I’d like to give you the short and sweet version of why we don’t like hand feeding treats and/or treat training at LOPE:

  • For lady horse lovers, I’d really like you to avoid this kind of experience. Trust me, it is no fun to have the silhouette of a Hooter’s waitress (but only from one side) — especially when the resemblance is due to swelling rather than silicon. Even worse, it was hard to expect much sympathy from the situation — because it was entirely my responsibility that it happened.
  • To show your horse love and affection, please treat him like a horse (not like a dog, your child or a mythical unicorn guardian angel). That is truly the best way to honor a horse and to give them what they need from their owner. When viewing the world from the horse’s perspective, it becomes apparent that they want enlightened leadership and consistent horsemanship from us. Too often, we tend to see things from our human point of view instead — and erroneously assume that the horse wants comfort food as a way to connect with us. But hand feeding treats encourages the horse to become at best pushy (and at worst spoiled) — which only strains their relationship with people over time.
  • Treat training is designed to create a conditioned response in horses. But horses aren’t particularly food motivated — so what treat training does is teach horses to do tricks in exchange for their handler becoming a form of candy Pez dispenser. It doesn’t build a true relationship of trust and leadership between the horse and the human (especially for riding). The difference between horsemanship and treat training becomes clear if a rider encounters “interesting” situations such as these. Pitching cookies into the horse’s mouth simply wouldn’t help in these scenarios — even if there was time to whip out the treats during the unexpected (and escalating) trouble.
  • Serious riders don’t strap on fanny packs full of treats before mounting their horses. If an equestrian has to bribe his horse via treats to perform under saddle, then he hasn’t really been riding the horse at all. And odds are that he has been relying on the treats to placate the horse instead of building his skills as a rider. Treats can’t take the place of the genuine bond you will have with your horse when you truly ride him with good horsemanship technique. Once you experience that, it becomes difficult to go back to the fanny pack again — there just is no comparison between the two approaches.

I love my horses and understand the allure of treats. But that allure is primarily for the human, not the horse. After all, it’s the person who glows with heartfelt emotion after hand feeding their horse a special cookie. The horse is more like, “Cool, she fed me something” — but isn’t exactly in an oxycontin haze over the whole deal.

Lest I sound like a super mean cookie Nazi, I do admit that I occasionally give a treat to my older ex-racehorse (Lightening Ball). But I put it in his bucket — and usually as a reward for an especially good ride together. And when all is said and done, it means more to me than it does to him. He would just as soon I feed him his usual dinner and let him go hang out with his pasture buddies instead.

Hand feeding and treat training can seem like such harmless (and fun) shortcuts to bonding with your horse. But shortcuts don’t work in horsemanship

Working with horses isn’t always easy. Hand feeding and treat training can seem like such harmless (and fun) shortcuts to bonding with your horse. But shortcuts just don’t work in horsemanship — all they do is prolong, complicate and sometimes entirely undo the process. So put away the treats and begin the real journey. You won’t regret it (and neither will your horse).

For a visual example of what that journey might look like, below is a short clip of Buck Brannaman. His riding demonstrates the relationship with your horse that comes from following good horsemanship principles. As he says in the video, “You may spend your whole life chasing that. But it’s a good thing to chase.”

And there isn’t a single treat in sight during his ride.

6 Comments

  1. We can teach you how to use food to effectively train horses. People who don’t know how can often get themselves in the kind of trouble you describe. Your “horsemanship” skills will be expanded by learning how to correctly deliver food reinforcement to your animal.
    ps. I don’t know what breed you are training that isn’t food motivated, but all the breeds we have ever trained are totally food motivated.

    • Lynn Reardon Lynn Reardon says:

      Thanks for the offer (we really do appreciate it) — but we truly have a fundamental preference for avoiding food reinforcement training for the LOPE horses. It’s not that we are looking for a way to learn how to do that — it’s more that we think it goes against the type of foundation horsemanship philosophy (from the Dorrance way of thought) that we follow at LOPE.

      The video clip of Buck Brannaman that was included in the blog post really says it better than I can. We want the horse to get with us in a relationship under saddle that is based on feel, understanding and horsemanship. It’s not about training the horse (as Buck says in the clip). It’s a big goal and a much more time-consuming approach — but we really think it is worth it for us to learn how to fit the horse (rather than having the horse perform in exchange for treats). I do appreciate your comment and thank you again.

  2. I’ve seen some pretty insanely amazing training done with treats involved… especially for really complex stuff like training seeing-eye horses. I do think like any other training tool that it’s possible to misuse and that certain horses just aren’t going to respond to it well because they have been spoiled or aren’t very interested in food or for whatever other reason. I initially thought my horse wasn’t very food-motivated at all, but when we reached a point in our training program where she was getting a little bored, introducing food rewards turned out to be a great tool to give her some extra motivation and to get her actually offering things to me instead of having to be prodded into giving something a try. It shouldn’t be a permanent crutch where you have to have a pocket full of treats to get anything done, but sometimes it’s a really useful bridge to get you over a hump. ;)

    • Lynn Reardon Lynn Reardon says:

      That’s a cool point you raise about seeing-eye horses! That must be something to see and experience. But seeing-eye horses are not riding horses — and I am guessing they would be mostly miniature horses too. So it would seem logical that they would be trained in a food-based way to perform functions like a seeing-eye dog.

      For us, we are trying to set the LOPE horses up for success in new careers — and often they may have gaps in their early foundation that need filling in. We haven’t hit a scenario yet where a horse is bored in training and needs a food reward to liven its curiosity. If a horse were to be dull in training here, we would probably use other tools (flag, obstacle course, changing up training routine) to address that. But again our work is different from working with personal horses over many years :)

  3. Shirley VH says:

    ” But horses aren’t particularly food motivated —” Actually food has proven to be their second most prime instict after breeding.
    A recent study showed that horses learn much faster with a food treat than with a good old pat for a job well done. The Spenish Riding school has pockets sewn in their riding coat tails to include treats after a ride. Good enough for me. Of course your Horsemanship and understanding has to be very up to par. I’m 85 and have been around horses most of my life. Only a few could not be stopped from aggressive treat searching and nipping.
    To each his own but don’t condemn all treats.
    Love the job you do at Lope.

    • Lynn Reardon Lynn Reardon says:

      Thank you so much for loving our work at LOPE! We appreciate your support a ton!
      For us, the issue is that we don’t really like the idea of using treats to reward horses to perform certain actions. It starts to edge over toward trick or circus performance types of training in a way. The Spanish Riding School is primarily training its horses to perform for the public — in beautiful dressage movements and extravagant examples of the more extreme versions of those movements. There is so much to learn from the school in many ways — but their main purpose is much different for the horses than forming a working partnership so they can have multiple careers (and riders) over their life — which is what the LOPE horses need to be prepared for.

      I definitely agree to each his own — and really appreciate your comment.

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