Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hand-feeding Treats

This is a hot topic and there is no consensus, even among top clinicians and trainers. I once moderated a round table discussion between Monty Roberts, John Lyons, and Pat Parelli at a big horse expo. They seemed to agree on everything until someone asked about hand-feeding treats. Monty said we should never do this, as it was completely unnatural for the horse and dangerous for the human. John said he wanted his horse so broke that even his little grandson could safely do it. And Pat said … wait for it … you can do anything if you have enough savvy.

That’s a big if, which is exactly why many clinicians argue against hand-feeding treats. If your horse does not respect your space, introducing food into the equation is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

How do you get your horse to respect your space? First, you have to claim your space as your own and never, ever allow your horse to enter it uninvited. You must defend your space with whatever amount of energy is required to get the point across. And this is important: you have to be consistent. If crowding into your space is wrong today, it has to be wrong tomorrow and every day after that. There must be a negative instant consequence (a NIC, in Monty Roberts’s words) to that behavior every single time.

Once you have developed this absolute commitment to defending your space and consistently communicated it to your horse, the rest is pretty easy. Training with food rewards is a time-honored tradition with marine animals and circus animals, including horses. Clicker training uses it very successfully and you can, too. It’s effective because food means something to a horse. There is total clarity with food. Food is always good. In fact, Diana recently broke through a genuine impasse in training her horse, Fidla, by introducing food as a reward.

Bottom line, hand-feeding treats to your horse can be done safely and have a positive effect on overall behavior, but it is not a trivial matter. Please do not attempt it until your horse consistently respects your space and you feel completely comfortable around him. Be clear and consistent, and most important, enjoy it! Seeing your horse gobble up something tasty is one of horse ownership’s special little pleasures.

Next time I’ll share the game we play with our horses to reinforce proper behavior with treats. We call it “pretend you don’t want it.”

16 comments:

Mad Dog Ranch said...

If you stay behind protective contact, and teach the horse how to take food politely from the beginning, you can avoid the whole "defending your space to the bitter end," issue.

Mad Dog Ranch said...

If you begin with protective contact, putting the horse behind a gate or a stall guard, you can teach him to take treats from hand politely without some big "defend your space," power struggle. Present the treat, the horse only gets to receive it if he is standing politely. Not very dramatic but extremely effective, and avoids negative associations with the process.

Rick said...

My experience is that horses will test the boundaries of space and behavior on a regular basis (some more than others, of course). There must be some boundaries that are inviolate and your space is one of them. Thanks for your comment.

Connie said...

I enjoyed the "treat feeding" article. It's funny how different trainers may feel about a subject. A treat IS FUN to give a horse, it's rewarding for them & humans! I learned from reading an article a long time ago,feeding a treat should NOT be done when tacking or untacking at the spot you do that activity, because they quickly learn to focus on the treat and don't stand still during that process. The "tie" spot is for grooming and standing still. It can be given at a "different" locations,after untacked, spur of the momments, so they never know when... It also suggested if you trail ride, about half way out when resting, give a small treat, they'll look forward to "leaving the barn" because something good could be coming. I like to cut up carrots/apples and add them to their feed bins with their hay as a special treat, they never know when that may come and then there isn't any wrong "focus" and no danger to a human hand!

julies whimsies on a rose said...

I have hand-fed my horses treats from the beginning of their training. I have never experienced a problem in teaching my horses to respect my space.

mustang2200 said...

I have a pony that tests boundaries regularly. I can't just give her a treat if she's been good because she'll get pushy. After our ride has ended and she's in her corral, she'll get a treat, but only if she backs up as far as I want her to. It could be four steps or twenty, she has to work for it. I have another pony, a mustang, I was having a terrible time getting to touch a ball with her nose in preparation of introducing her to Horse Soccer. Once I tried using a treat it was instant genius! She knew exactly what I was talking about! The motivation of cookie!

Laurie said...

I've heard the argument against hand feeding treats for years. All I have to say is that I watched the late Dr. Reiner Klimke at a clinic give a stallion treats after working very hard at a particular movement. Now, Dr. Klimke won six Olympic gold medals and two bronze and was a remarkable rider and trainer. It's always made me believe that hand feeding treats must not be all that bad.

Barbara said...

With unhandled horses, (Never had a halter on) I teach commands like "stand", "back", "over", etc. before I ever put a rope on them this extends personal respect and establishes boundaries. I do feed a large cube treat as a reward for a break through and it is amazing how well this works. After further work they will love being scratched or groomed as a reward. Until they can appreciate this contact, the treats are an ideal reward.

Don said...

I recently cured a tough training situation buy the use of treats.

I purchased a "show" trained TWH who was used to always being spirited and fired up while being ridden. I bought him to used in the sport of field trialing pointing breed dogs. At first he was petrified of gunshot. He quickly learned that seeing a dog on point meant that soon a gun would go off and he was going to die (in his mind) and a moment of panic would take over.

To solve this, I ponied him with my bomb proof SSH and treated him to a horse peppermint when he stood quietly during gunfire. Soon between the calm of my SSH, the treat and the peer pressure of remaining calm, he sought out the treat and ignored the gunfire. Next I moved to riding him with a pocket full of peppermints. Standing quiet at gunshot earned him a treat. He is now to the point where I can fire a pistol in the saddle with out a flinch and without a cue as to it's pending occurrence. His only reaction is to turn his head and look for his reward.

All that being said, using treats in the context of specific training exercises worked for me. At the same the lack of treats in the context outside training has avoided creating a 1,100 pound lap dog jumping all over for me expecting food.

This is one example of many that I have used treats to give a message of approval and accomplishment that was clear and contextual.

Don
San Antonio, Florida

Tracey said...

I am a long time John Lyons horsewoman and I have never had a problem handfeeding treats or letting anyone else do the same. I have two mares (12 and 19) and a shetland pony (12). All I can say is if you are afraid of losing fingers, getting pushed around or getting head butted, your problems are bigger than whether or not to hand feed a treat!

Rick said...

Thanks to all for sharing your thoughts. I knew this would light up the switchboard! Clearly experience makes a huge difference. Any advice for novices?

John said...

As an alternative to hand-feeding, I use a plastic plate to put the treat on. I hold the plate while they take the treat off - my horses eat off a plate!. We play the Magic Plate game...I put a treat on, they come and eat it, they back up, I put another treat on it. Heck, they could come to dinner!

While maybe not quite as satisfying as hand feeding, it works for me.

cindy said...

I had a willful gelding who was taught to respect humans' space, but would slyly nip at people whenever he could, despite my "killing" him every time, a la John Lyons. So I clicker trained him - he learned that if he kept his head in his own space he earned a click and food reward. He never nipped again. (Most people's response is "Oh, that's a good way to make a biter!") I used the clicker training to teach him many things, including to put his hoof on a hoof stand with cradle so I could pick out his hoofs when I broke my arm. Clicker training is not difficult, but requires patience and consistancy, and can be very rewarding for both you and your horse. Information about clicker training is readily available - give it a try!

cometrdr said...

OK I'll bite Rick - (or should I say my horse nips) I am qa new rider - quite the amature back yard owner. I love my horse and had feed all the time. Small Carrot 'Nickels' when in saddle and he performs the correct way. He anticipates the treat when I pat his whiters and say good boy. he brings his head back and accepts the treat in line with the stirrup - work on his flexability that way too. On the ground i love to come up to him and play, he is very what I see as in your face loving. he will lick my hand for ever and we nuzzel - muzzel to muzzel all the time. (no I am not making out with my horse) and yes once in a great while he nips. I give him an immediate Motherly whack and then love him again. Once in a while is like no more often then once every 6 weeks or so. always testing me - but always recieving the same response back. He is my big baby and love personal attention - it may not be right by some trainers that I have read but in my book I Love it so I do it.

Connie said...

To "cometrdr".... I have a smile on my face and a nervous look at the same time. I know I can feel others doing the same thing from your post. You are amateur, admittedly... but from experience, 22 yrs and 9 horses, raised 5 babies, for your safety and someone unexpectedly who may visit your horse, no nipping is tolerated once every 6 wks or once a yr...NEVER. A "motherly" correction is not in the horse/human handbook either. He isn't respecting your space, because you haven't drawn a line, ie: a hula hoop around you. Not saying you can't get "close to him" for hugs etc. but he is NEVER to test YOU!! You are not his heard mate, you are his leader and at all expense, you must show him who is the queen. You have 4 seconds to correct and it can't be lightly...so he puts his dangerous activity at bay. Again, for your safety...and maybe someone else's on any given day he could be looking for a treat from them. Riding him and feeding him treats...not fond of that, because he is supposed to focus on the business at hand, not turning to look for a treat. You can teach him how to flex while you are in the saddle, and food isn't a reward for that. I'm not trying to be a B-----...I am concerned when new owners are "in love" (which I am and have learned many things over the yrs.)... but you need to watch lots of the famous trainers in how to get the respect and still reward your horse when appropriate. (Please don't read this with a bad tone...hard to convey in typing form without concerned tone in my "voice" that you can't hear). I don't think I am alone on this thought. Enjoy your horse, but your love is earned and respected as though you were the lead mare...

Lanie said...

I always learn something when I listen to horse people, both new owners and veterans. Thank you ,Rick, for providing a forum for such discussions.
My personal experience with hand feeding treats over the past 18 years has been that it depends on the personality of both the owner and the horse. At first, when I had small children around and I was a less strong leader, I really couldn't afford to hand feed. My horses would invade my space, jeopardize my safety, and jostle each other around as they competed for the 'front row seat'. Now, I can read their body language better- and convey my intentions more accurately through my body language,so we can get away with it. I have a very dominant mule that I require to be on his best behavior before he gets a treat, while my shy quarter horse, gets one almost every time we have contact. It is a great way to motivate some horsenalities. Treats are like any other horseman's tool, their use will change as you and your horse learn from each other over time.