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.
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.
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 🙂