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.