Horse Training With Treats, Does It Work?

Horse trained with treats and affection
Horse trained with treats and affection Flickr: BLM Photo

Have you ever considered using treats as part of a training routine? To treat or not to treat.  A simple question without a simple answer.

Horses love treats

Horses love treats

The general consensus is that treats as a training motivator don't work.
© Debra Krall

Some horse owners/professionals will answer with an emphatic no, using treats to train a horse is not a wise decision. Others will disagree, acknowledging that yes, treats are an important part of behavior modification. Still others believe that using treats to train horses depends on the individual horse and its personality.

An internet search will confirm that most horse owners and horse professionals fall into one of the three categories. With all that being said, how do you know what is right for your horse? To help you decide if using treats will help you and your horse achieve your goals, read below for feedback from horse owners and trainers from diverse backgrounds.

Most professionals do not use treats for training

Some argue that using treats during training encourages a horse to be nosy. "I think treats given by hand causes mouthing and biting issues and I would not recommend them for training," said Tonja Spencer of Dallas, Pennsylvania.

"I don't really like it (training with treats). It makes them too mouthy, I talk and use my hands to rub along his neck and his poll. He puts his head down for me to do it," Crickit Steele of Esperance, New York said.

Others believe that the most effective method for training is to fully develop a bond with the horse. "Horses, like most animals, even people, are emotional responders. I don't believe "treats" are the proper way to teach any animal or human for that matter," commented Kristin Durrin of Prospect, Connecticut. "Truly learning to connect and teach requires a bond, communication and an emotional connection. Once you have that, you have everything, no treats needed."

Those that oppose using treats during a horse's training also argue that rewarding a horse with treats distracts the horse. "I personally don't like using treats. I think it is a distraction to the animal. I want the horse focused on what I am asking, not where is the next treat," said Crystal Marshall of Crystal's Performance Horse.

Using treats depends on the horse's personality

As adamant as some horse owners and professionals are against feeding treats to encourage good behaviors, others acknowledge that treats are effective with some horses.

"I do remember one 2 year old I started that was very nervous with the mounting process and he loved peppermints. I used them for about a week and he became much more relaxed and happy with the process," Dodie Howard of Dodie Howard Show Horses said. "I believe there is a time and place for treats based on their individual needs and personalities."

The horse's personality will play an important role in whether or not using treats is useful. "I really think it depends on the horse," Rachel Heiser of Meadow Hill Farm commented. "I have had horses I have treated during training and they have responded well.  Others have been too nosy or mouthy so I don't use treats with them."

When giving horse treats, use them effective

Treats can be incorporated into groundwork exercises to encourage horses to stretch. "I don't mind making them 'work' for a treat, like doing a carrot stretch, but I try not to just give hand-fed handouts. I definitely throw handouts in her grain bucket though and she seems to 'get it' sometimes, she sees me and noses over to see the bucket," Kristina Kleeh of Buffalo, New York said.

A common concern

Many horse owners believe that giving horse treats may lead to pushy behavior, or biting. Avoid this by giving treats infrequently, and avoid situations where horses compete with each other to get a treat.

"I do use treats, but like all good things they should be in moderation. I give them to horses after I work them if they were good. If they are a show horse or if they are nippy I put their treats in their feed buckets. And sometimes we do give them just because like for Christmas and on their birthdays," Tracey Staniak of Halfmoon, New York said.

Linda Parelli also addressed the issue of using treats in her article "Using Horse Treats for Horse Training Bribe or Bonus?"

"It's not about the treat. How you use it makes the difference between a bribe and bonus, it's all about how your horse perceives it," she wrote.

As with many horse training practices, it depends on the horse and the owner or trainer working with the horse, and its intended discipline.

Regardless of their opinions on the effectiveness of using treats, everyone seems to agree that the best method for giving treats to any horse is in a grain bucket or feed bin. "I'll usually offer them in their feed buckets as many of my clients do showmanship and sometimes treats can make them a little preoccupied with the meaning of your hands and whether or not you have a treat for them," Howard concluded.

About the Author

Katie Navarra

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Katie has been a freelance writer since 2001 and has more than 250 bylines to her credit.  In addition to writing for equine publications, she also writes for landscape, general agriculture and business publications.