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Treats for Tricks or Trick and Treat


I am always open to hearing the opposite opinion or an insightful argument on a theme as this article is. It is an opinion that has come from the time spent for the last 20 years, understanding herd behaviour and how horses think.


In the past 3 years, I have seen a trend toward the practise of treat training, trick training, clicker training, positive reinforcement training or any number of names for the same method. It has manifested itself in a certain section of the horse world and for them has become the “method du jour” or considered innovative and modern thought.


I am not talking about giving horses a treat once in a while and I agree that there are some very calculated situations where a behaviour (usually negative) needs operant conditioning to change it. What I am discussing here, is motivating horses toward a specific response by using food to elicit a variety of single isolated events or behaviours.  


This new positive reinforcement wave represents nothing more than operant conditioning, that falls within the behaviourist’s laboratory framework.  It is a mechanical pairing of a stimulus and response, with no real thought or exchange of ideas, and should be left to dolphins, mice, and our favourite domesticated pet..our dog.


The positive reinforcement proponents say it is “a much more humane way of training horses that does not use negative pressure”. Understandably treat training is better than punishing a horse through physical, cruel or sustained pressure, but this definition leaves some feeling guilty and serves to stop people from looking at horses in a much more natural way as a prey animal.

First, it is not natural for a horse to live in an instant gratification world, that is the way we have adapted to our human world. Horses live in the moment and respond according to that way in their herd. We need to be aware of the fact that when we give food rewards to horses, it mimics nothing in their herd behavior and is not naturally occurring. When I am working with a horse or teaching a student, I need to lose my human needs and desires and think as naturally as a part of a herd. Horses live harmoniously out in the field receiving constant feedback from the leader/mentor or leaders, on what is not in the best interest of the herd. 


Horses live every day with pressure around them, even when we are not there. They are constantly putting pressure on other herd members for certain behaviours that are not for the good of the livelihood of the herd. That is what they do. They are prey animals and this adaptive behaviour of what the best thing to do to find release from pressure is completely normal and allows them to learn boundaries so that they can live in a more balanced and relaxed state and to know what is acceptable and what is not.


To stimulate a horse's mind and heart without the focus on food reinforcement is much more difficult because it takes time and a deep understanding of a prey animal. It takes slow and steady learning of a language because any communication requires a language. A language where both parties can listen, ask, clarify, understand, and requires a relationship to do this. It also requires time and sometimes lots of it. A language takes words first and then slowly has longer and longer conversations. The conversations are effortless, seamless, and magical because we have understood each other through time, reflection, and getting better at it. This takes much more than a piece of crunch. It takes knowledge, passion, a time commitment, and a true understanding of the horse.

Treat training is an easy way to “get’ a horse to do something. What we are doing when we reinforce with treats is nothing more than teaching horses “tricks” which reflects no language at all and is like a laboratory experiment.

Treats provide a direct correlation to a payoff without thought. There is no language. There are no opportunities for the horse to give us feedback so that we can analyze what we are lacking in our communication about what we are doing (or not doing).

I know I could teach my horse to rear, lay down, do a Spanish walk, or any number of tricks with time. But there is a natural way to do this and an unnatural way to do this that has an instant payoff with no conversation. If we can be quick with just resting and doing nothing after the correct answer is given, instead of giving a treat to our horse for every movement towards the correct answer, then I believe there would be more rapport, more trust, more true communication, and partnership with everything else that comes after it.


I have seen horses that can do quite entertaining “tricks” in front of many people, but as they are led in and out of the area show either fearful or sometimes quite dominant and are very hard to handle. Using horses for our own musing and entertainment just reinforces that we live in an instant gratification world even where the horse is concerned.

My guess is that these people have not taken the time to use knowledge to build a language with a horse or have been told that any other way is cruel. Instead, we see clickers and clappers and tick- tockers and treat pouches of every shape and form. Its instant gratification and once traveling down that path, it becomes a slippery slope and does not build trust. Why do some horse humans want this? I can't think of one Master Horseman through the ages that use this technique. The most successful students who have studied with me over the years are successful because they are not following trends but following the mind of the horse.


The next time you reach into your pocket and give a reward for a behaviour, think of the mouse touching the target to get the piece of cheese or the dolphin jumping out of the water to a cheering crowd for a fish and think. What are we really doing here? Horses deserve more than shaping their brain synapsis so that they perform. By the way, how does that even transfer to riding?

Tell me am I wrong?



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