It’s been against my nature to train a horse with ‘treats.’ I’ve always been aware of the pushy, mouthy and aggressive behavior that can result, and have seen it first-hand a few times, which is why I would not recommend it as a training method in general. However, as with any training, there are often exceptions to the rule… and I am seeing from my own experience that training with treats might actually work, depending on the horse and the horse’s temperament that you are working with.
Keep in mind that the horse that you buy may have been trained and handled in a way that is very different from the way that you might handle and train a horse. It’s a good idea to ask questions of the person you’re buying a horse from — such as whether they have used any treats or rewards in training or working with their horse. We found this out with the last horse we purchased, a 10-year-old Morgan mare.
Our two “elder” mares, Misty and Sabrina, had been together here at our place for about 8 years. They would be turned out to pasture “24/7” all summer long and then brought back to the barn during the winter and cold months. We would ride together, rarely separating the two. It was during mid-March of 2012 when we lost Misty very unexpectedly. Sabrina, then 28 years of age, witnessed the demise of her pasture-mate, and was suddenly alone for the first time in many years. She was understandably agitated, and kept searching for her companion, whinnying and running up to the pasture where they had spent so many happy years together. I realized that we needed to find a replacement horse, a companion for Sabrina quickly, or we might lose her as well.
My search led me to the 10-year-old mare called “Princess.” She was obviously of the same Morgan heritage as Sabrina, and was very good-natured, easy to work around and ride and was considered an “easy keeper” as Morgans tend to be. We brought her home and introduced her to Sabrina, who seemed to accept her immediately, and with enthusiasm, within just a week or so of Misty’s passing.
Morgan has been at our place for 2 1/2 years now; the first year I rode her regularly, about 5 days a week during that first spring and summer and even into the winter when weather permitted. This past year, however, work commitments curtailed my riding time dramatically and I found I was not able to ride much at all. I noticed that over the winter, Morgan seemed to be in a sour mood from time to time — even in the stall, she would put her ears back and acted like she was not happy when I came in to feed or groom her. Funny, as we felt our animals all have “the life of Riley” — they get excellent food, shelter, care and attention. Once the warm weather came, Sabrina and Morgan were ‘free spirits’, enjoying the long summer days out to pasture, without much intervention save for twice-daily feeding and grooming. And when I did ride, I found Morgan’s mood and relationship with me had digressed noticeably. Although she would always whinney in response to my calling for them, she started running away from me rather than coming to me when I wanted to ride! She also resisted when I attempted to mount up, and I realized I needed to spend some good “quality time” with her and try to figure out what the problem might be.
I complained to my husband, and also mentioned this to my friend Mary, who is a horse trainer of many years. My husband told me that he remembered when we first went to look at Morgan, her former owner kept reaching in her pocket and giving her a treat every time she asked her to do something — such as when she saddled and bridled her, picked up her feet, loaded her on the trailer, etc. Every time she asked the horse to do something, she gave her a treat! I was not aware of this, as I was looking the horse over carefully but not focusing on how the owner treated her. And interestingly, my friend Mary suggested “Every time you are around Morgan, give her a carrot, or at least a good sized piece of one. That ought to make her more willing to be “caught” and to “like” you. To give you so much trouble to mount her, I suspect she is feeling discomfort somewhere. There is the old trick of giving her a carrot as soon as you are on her. Let her know first that you have it and as soon as you are on, lean forward and have her reach around for it. But this will not fix any real discomfort. Was there any time you were using a different saddle or blanket that she was any better?”
That very day, I started carrying pieces of apple or carrot in my pocket. When I went out to the barn in the morning, I’d say “Morgan, COME!” and when she did, I’d reward her with a piece of apple or carrot. I kept it up, using the same tone of voice — whether she was on the other side of the fence, or had her head inside the stall — I’d say “Morgan, COME!” and wait for her to respond, then give her the treat. In just a short time, I started to see a softening of her eyes and ears. She began to look forward to seeing me with a whinney.
Reflecting on the saddling process, I checked the fit of all the tack. I decided to switch saddle pads, as the pad that came with the saddle I was using was built up in front, which was not really necessary for Morgan’s conformation. I tried out a couple of blankets that were too thin, and finally settled on a nice pad that was evenly lined and that fit the saddle well. That seemed to help, as she seemed more relaxed when I was riding her. And when saddling up, I would reach around and give her a piece of apple from my pocket — this stopped her moving off quickly before I was ready to go. Now she stands stock-still until after I give her the treat and ask her to move.
The telling moment was when I went up to the pasture to retrieve her in the afternoon to go for a ride. After days of saying “Morgan, COME” and giving her pieces of apple, I was ready for the big test. I walked up to the summer pasture and called. She immediately whinneyed in answer, then came loping down the hill toward me — and stopped! Rather than running away, she came over to get the treat and waited while I snapped the lead on her halter. She did this the next time I went up to bring the horses back to the barn to ride. The third day was a bit more challenging. It was very windy, and each gust of wind seemed to knock a few apples off the wild apple trees growing in the pasture. Morgan was galloping around the pasture, stopping from time to time to pick up an apple that had fallen, and whinnying from the excitement. I stood at one end of the pasture and said “Morgan, COME!” She galloped around whinnying — and came right up to me and stopped. She was breathing heavily but stood stock-still while I snapped on the lead and gave her a tiny bit of apple. I was satisfied that my ‘treat training’ was working!
A little research shows that training with treats can be successful if done carefully — remembering that if the horse becomes mouthy or pushy the treat should not be given immediately, but rather a warning and reminder given to the horse, to always be respectful and take the treat gently. As time goes by and you are consistent in your training, your relationship with your horse should begin to improve, and you may notice your horse becoming more willing and eager to work with you… and you will be on your way to a better relationship with your horse, a happy one that is built on mutual trust and respect.