Stick or Treat?



Or Treat? …….


Excuse the simplistic title, but I couldn’t resist the Hallowe’en pun!

How often have you heard, “Don’t give horses treats, it’ll make them bite”?

I’m not a complete anarchist, but I don’t like rules without reasons.

As a small child, if I caught sight of a horse in a field, I’d be lured to the fence, grabbing a handful of the lushest grass in view to try to entice the horse to come over.  (If I was lucky there might have been some of those packets of sugar lumps in my pocket, carefully saved from a café.)  Most good-natured horses, bored and browsing would come over, ever optimistic….

”Oh…just a handful of grass then…..s’pose I may as well hang out while you’re handing me that richer stuff over the fence for free….”

It seemed basic sense to me.  I like the look of you.  Let’s make friends.  You come, I reward.

However, I soon came to realise that wasn’t always how it worked.  Travelling over the Yorkshire Moors with my parents, we stopped at a horse sanctuary, where, for the entry fee, you were given a small paper bag of the sort they used to sell loose sweets in, filled with horse “nuts” to give the farm’s residents.

Holding the treats in the flat palms of our hands, as we were instructed, we distributed largesse among the retired pit ponies and their aged friends.  Then the treats ran out and the pony I’d fed my last handful to bared its big yellow teeth and took a lump out of my pre-teen chest.  It was so painful that my parents took me to the nearest hospital to be examined by an unknown doctor.  As you can imagine it was beyond embarrassing at that age and the memory hasn’t faded.

So I have very good reason to believe that giving horses treats encourages them to bite.

If you raise them yourself, you learn their characters and how to handle them from foals.

Many of us acquire horses who already have some history.  Other than professional riders who have known a wealth of horses, and horses who have been used to passing from rider to rider as (potential) athletes, most new, amateur horse/rider teams go through some testing times before achieving a working partnership.

Some don’t get there, so yet another ”for sale” ad appears and there’s no blame or shame in acknowledging a mismatch ………. it’s a very valuable experience.

But if you feel there’s too much potential to pass up, how do you settle a stranger into the fold and make that horse your willing partner?

As you spend at least the first few weeks, even months wriggling in to a comfortable routine, horse will push with his nose, stick it in the air, not stand still for a minute if you need him to.  Fidget and fuss when any kind of care, grooming, blanketing or tacking up are attemped.

He may try to barge whilst being led, nip at girth tightening, flinch at stirrups being brought down, samba like he’s auditioning for ”Strictly” anywhere near the mounting block and take off at rocket launch speed before you’ve settled both feet in the stirrups …. all these evasions make it plain the horse has yet to trust us or take pleasure in our company or our riding.

You may have the experience and patience to get through this stage quickly or even nip it in the bud depending on the nature of the horse and your own abilities.  Or you may find you have a horse who comes with with saddlebags full of bad behaviour or attitude, innate or from ill-treatment.

You may even come to the end of your patience, lose your temper and use your crop.  Shout and swear a bit.  Feel thoroughly ashamed and at wit’s end after.  Your horse may be intimidated into obedience, but he will fear, not trust.

Why wouldn’t you use treats to gain his trust rather than getting more forceful?

It is said that because a lower ranking herd member cedes grazing or food to his superior, giving food to your horse makes him think less of you.

However, herd leaders lead to food!

In any case, I remain sceptical about horses mistaking us for other horses and taking mimicry of their behaviours too literally!!

I’m glad that clicker training, horse agility and ground work have brought the terms positive and negative reinforcement into more usual usage.  These concepts help us understand the whys and wherefores of motivating our horses and gives them scientific respectability.

And if more validation is needed, a study by researchers at the University of Rennes (information from Cheval Pratique magazine) found that a group of young horses who received edible treats as recompense, bit or kicked 5 to 6 times less than the control group who didn’t.

A further study showed another test group of horses to be more motivated to perform an action on command when they received food as a recompense than those who received massaging or scratching of the withers.  Some didn’t even recognise the scratching as a recompense.  Apparently this was unsurprising as, although older studies had shown scratching of the withers by a human lowered horses’ heart rates, horses spend 65% of their time eating as against 1% mutual grooming.

All domesticated animals have to learn to accept that feeding and touch from human hands are pleasant, rewarding experiences – positive reinforcement – which is described as adding something to training.   And is as important as learning negative reinforcement, something which is taken away when answered.  The pressure of your aids;  pressure on the mouth or flanks, the tap of a dressage or swish of a lungeing whip…..

Secondary positive reinforcement is the addition of vocal praise and caresses to the titbit and comes to replace it where offering food is impractical and the good behaviour is acquired.  As does the clicker, which has the advantage – with practised dexterity – of marking the exact moment of behaviour which deserves a treat.  And the horse has to make progress in his learning to get the reward over time.

Without the science, and before I’d read more about ”click and treat” or positive reinforcement, my gut instinct was to use food, responsibly and with care, as a reward for my horses, and it has nearly always worked well.

I don’t have problems with calling them to come or catching them, bitting, saddling, grooming, rugging or medicating under normal circumstances.  My greatest challenge was taming the savage in Pom, who turned out to be a serious biter when I first got him home.

“Whatever you do, don’t spoil him…” his previous owner dead-panned.  (She explained that after an accident with the owner before her, he had been on box confinement for a long period at a stables where when people had tried to pat him or give him treats over the door and he’d grown more and more sour, frustrated and angry.)

But that was exactly what he needed in the long run; to feel safe, secure and rewarded for the things he did right, though neither he nor I was sure it was that simple at the beginning.

He got lots of treats and grooming, treatment for his sweet-itch, scratching and praise and as much attention as I could give him besides the other two, Aly and Pie.

(“You called?”)


(“I’m There”)


There was a lot of training to make up.  At eight, he had the training level of a barely schooled four-year old, and though I thought my experience was up to handling him, he was an extreme challenge.  He tried to bite all the time when you handled him, on the ground or in his stable.  He would even charge with his teeth bared in the field.  He would grab any stick or whip with his teeth.  He was equally aggressive with the other horses.  But hey, he didn’t kick (or buck under saddle) – great advantages in my book, and when we were on the same page in our riding, he was like no other horse I’d ever ridden, generally in a positive way!

The only way I could figure out how to get past the aggession was carefully judged bribery.  At least it gave him something to chew on rather than me or my husband.  Apart from a twice daily feed, low in grain high in apples, carrots or seasonal fruit, he would be rewarded for just showing up and and doing anything safely around us.  I mostly feed treats, carrot or fruit slices by hand, but from a clear plastic container, the kind they sell vegetables in, so that when it’s empty the treats are, visibly, “All Gone”.  Sugar lumps, very greedily received are reserved for very special rewards.   And commercial biscuits are very handy for clicker training, easy to carry and quick to deploy and not quite so distractingly delicious as sugar!

(Pom helping himself to apples.)


All I can say is: it worked.  Pom is a very emotional horse, wears his heart on his sleeve and is more affectionate than any other horse I’ve had dealings with, not just my own.  He’s greedy and intelligent, so a quick learner.


(And again…)

I loved my old Aly dearly, but he didn’t much like fuss and, as his breath on my skin brought me out in a rash I didn’t want to be in his face. But gently invading Pom’s space and progressively being in close proximity, forced him to accept my trust and give his in return.  We have had disagreements, as happened over lunging earlier in the year, but I’m glad to say that was a temporary blip and our partnership has, if anything, been reinforced since.

So, the fishing net in the Stick picture?  I’ve used the usual desensitising methods to get Pom used to whips and crops, but our tool of choice for ground work and clicker targeting is our bright green shrimp-net on a bamboo stick 🙂

About cavaliereattitude

Englishwoman, transplanted to SW France in '86, blogging - with a large dose of humour and self-deprecation - about life with my husband and our horses, the never-ending renovation of an ancient and crumbly stone farmhouse and the attempt to carve a beautiful garden and productive pasture out of a woodland wilderness.........
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20 Responses to Stick or Treat?

  1. Pingback: Happy Halloween From A Politically Correct Ghost | Third News

  2. rontuaru says:

    I say do whatever works. What’s most important is that you kept trying to find a safe, non-threatening way to overcome your obstacles. The only way you can fail is to give up!


  3. Anna Blake says:

    Sounds like the conversation is progressing, and that is good. Because it means both of you have an open mind, the best training aid of all. I work with rescue horses, some destroyed by treats and some by the lack of treats, if that makes sense. This is what I know; it is all about the leadership (or lack of it) behind the treat. Glad to hear you and Pom are doing so well.


    • Completely agree Anna; treats can spoil and treats can rescue depending on how or why they’re given. The open mind is me to a tee, which I why I find a blanket ban on treats so close-minded! On the home front, Pom and I are having a bit of a love-in this Autumn – damn I’ve probably jinxed it now!


  4. Sandra says:

    Love your hallowe’en pun 🙂 Well you know I use treats all the time (after all, what’s good enough for the horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is certainly good enough for mine). I do use a marker signal, and I have 2. When I teach something new, I give a tongue click and then a food reward. While they eat the food, I also praise by saying ‘good’ or ‘good girl’. Then when the new behaviour becomes established, I leave out the tongue click, but say ‘good’ and then treat. I can then gradually phase out the food treat, because to my horses the word ‘good’ has become a secondary reinforcer by association, and because I follow up with a treat at times, it stays that way. Works for us 🙂


  5. doggess76 says:

    When I got my new dog I knew I was only interested in positive reinforcement training. In three months she has mastered or is working on probably close to twenty different commands/cues. I use either a clicker or a marker signal (“Yes”) and she still astounds me with how quickly she picks things up.


    • Hi Lara! Love your new blog (and dog, of course). Had you clicker trained any of your horses or other animals or is Ruby your first clicker trainee? I just love the way that once they get it, they get really creative about trying to please. Ruby looks like a bright spark, and so pretty!


      • doggess76 says:

        It is my first experience with clicker training! A friend had suggested it for Dani before I sold her and in the future I would like to give it a try. Ruby is a joy – just the challenge I needed, I think, since horse life has slowed down.


  6. Elaine L says:

    When I go to the barn to see Dini I call him in from a long pasture (I wish I could whistle!) Then I click him for coming when called and give him his treat. Yesterday the farrier was there with the barn owner; the owner was complaining that Dini would not come to his call to have his trim, even though the other 3 horses in his pasture immediately responded and came right down to the gate. I laughed, and told him that Dini always comes to his momma. I went to the gate, clapped my hands loudly, and called his name. His head shot up and he came cantering down the meadow to me. The owner was surprised and I told him that Dini is too smart to come to him because he knows that it isn’t time to be fed and without a treat to look forward to why would he leave his grass? On the other hand he knows his momma is the source of all that is good. Whenever Dini starts to get mouthy or nippy I get all up in his mouth with my hands. I rub his muzzle, twist his muzzle like a twitch, stick my fingers in and out of his mouth, and pull his tongue until he decides to stop that bad behavior.


    • I wish I could whistle too! So right Elaine – if we are the “source of all good”, yet don’t tolerate bad behaviour, that’s surely got to be the best kind of momma 🙂
      Are you riding Dini again? I do hope his problems have ironed out in the sunshine!
      (Btw, I looked for the film with the old chateaux in – re my previous post – and only found a clip of the truly horrendous ending – so, not recommended, as the location wasn’t especially recognisable either!)


      • Elaine L says:

        Oh, that’s too bad; thanks for trying! There are so few places left on earth with any magic still lingering. Sometimes you can find a trace in the old castles and forests (Muir Woods in California is once such place).
        No, I am still not riding Dini. Next month the vet will be coming to do thermography and if his back shows no inflammation then we can begin again. :0)


      • Fingers crossed and Good Luck!! (let me know)


  7. subodai213 says:

    I’ve always thought that horses are stomachs with feet. I’d also been told that sugar cubes…not treats in general…made horses nippy.
    I’ve never fed sugar cubes…too sticky, in my opinion, but a handful of carrots or horse ‘cookies’ don’t make a horse a biter. I’ve been bitten and nipped by horses, strange horses I had never handled, ridden or treated at all. Biting and nipping is how a horse pushes another horse around, and by extension, us. Alydar, the TB I leased, was a biter. He didn’t like being girthed, not because I was hard on him, but because his owner had let him get away with it. She would dodge the bite rather than deal with it.
    Treating is, in my mind, a means of positive reinforcement. My Arab, Jordan, was a little hard to catch (no wonder…he’d been a school horse before I bought him, and had learned that coming when called meant being put to work.) I taught him, as I’ve taught all my subsequent horses, the three Hard C’s….cookie, (the treats you buy at the feed store), candy (pepperment horse treats), and carrot. I feed them the treat, saying the word for it over and over. It doesn’t take them long at all to associate the name for the treat. Within a week of teaching Jordan the ‘song’, he would come running when called-and once I’d established that coming when called didn’t always mean work..(in fact it usually was for lovely things, like a grooming or a good scratching) I dispense with the treats completely.
    Another use I’ve found for treats was this: worming time. Instead of struggling with a horse who’s come to learn that that big syringe has some nasty stuff in it, I’ll dose him frequently with a syringe filled with apple sauce. The first time I show up with the syringe, it’s a battle (so to speak…) the horse knows that syringe means nasty worming paste..until he tastes the apple sauce.
    Do that two or three times, and soon he’s looking for the syringe.
    Of course, you have to give him a dose of worming paste if he’s on a schedule…but one dose of worming paste amidst several (over several weeks, of course) of apple sauce, makes it easier to worm them.
    Fortunately Raven’s in a barn where we don’t need to worm…the pastures are picked up so often there’s no real need.


  8. magreenlee says:

    I’ve nominated you for a Sunshine Award. Pop over to to see what it’s all about.


  9. That’s so flattering, Martine *turning pink* Thank You!!! An interesting bunch of questions to answer – I’ll try and get my head around it.


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