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Many people love to feed their horses treats, but there is a lot of conficting advice out there about treats. Some horses do develop bad habits of nipping or pushiness because of treat feeding, so some people have banished them from their barns altogether. Some feed treats just as an occasional reward, and others use treats as an essential training tool. Clicker training is a method that has been around for awhile in training dogs and marine mammals, but is just starting to gain popularity in the horse world, and it uses treats as one of the main components of the training system.

I personally have seen horses that get pretty darn obnoxious from being fed treats, but I tend to blame that on the manner the treats were given, not the tasty morsels themselves. In today’s video, I talk more about my opinion on how treats can be a part of your training program, and explain how bad habits form as a result of incorrect feeding.

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Comments

36 Responses

    1. Hi Lesa, I always make sure that the horse’s head is forward, not back at my pockets, and they aren’t roughly grabbing for the treat. If you are consistent about always feeding the treat with their head forward, not reaching towards you, they are much better about not searching pockets and not getting mouthy for food.

  1. Your videos are very helpful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
    I completed a 2 year horsemanship program then purchased my first horse in May. We were taught not to use treats, and the posted rule at the barn is no hand feeding. My horse is extremely difficult to catch in the pasture. I was surprised when the Director, who has worked with horses for over 40 years and implemented this rule, suggested I use treats in an effort to train my horse to cooperate. Treats may be controversial but there can be exceptions and benefits when properly given.

    1. Hi Cheryl, Way to go doing a two year course before the purchase of your first horse! I am sure that commitment will serve you very well!

  2. Thank you so much for another great video! We love to give treats in our barn. Some horses, like our 30-year- old Quarter Horse mare, can just get their treats. Others, like my mouthy Joe, have been taught to “give kisses” or nod yes when asked if he wants a treat…

  3. Hi callie… depends on the horse and their personality….. we always feed treats….some horses are perfectly fine with hand feeding treats and some are not…its the horse not the treats..I believe ………
    great blog

  4. Hi Callie…
    thanks for this video. I am a huge proponent of positive reinforcement and behavioral analysis in training. I have parrots at home (not really much different from horses when you approach them as a prey animal :>) and they have been using such techniques for years. Good to see it’s being used now for other domesticated species.
    I have no problems with treats when used properly as a positive reinforcement tool. It’s a powerful tool, however, and can be misused and misunderstood. Thanks for the insights!!!
    Brooks

  5. Hi Callie – Today I found your website because I read Caroline Rider’s Equine PTSD article in Natural Horse. I look forward to attending her clinic at your facility ! Your video about treats is great. You reminded me that my original use of treats/rewards (9 yrs ago) was to give my new Nokota, Charlie, (who was friendly, but ran away from halters) a positive reward for approaching me. Rewards for groundwork in a stall, walk forward, then back up. Plus bow his head (to get it below his withers) . Also for touching his nose to anything scary. Our regular routine is that he gets a treat BEFORE I park him at the mounting block. He chews one AS he stand alike a statue for mounting, and he always waits for his final “now she’s safely in the saddle” treat. I ask him to move only AFTER that Reward. And yes, he and Wazi also get treats just for being my great friends.

  6. Hi Callie
    Love your blog and YouTube channel, I am a beginner and I ride a 19 year old quiet mare that I struggle to even get to a slow trot, I gave her a carrot after one lesson, the lesson after that she bolted as I was trying to walk her without stirrups and I fell, do you think her bolt and feeding might be related? Sorry if it sounds like a silly question, but it’s my first fall and it was painful and lost a lot of confidence, so looking at every angle that might have a clue about why she bolted.

    1. Hi Maryam,
      Thanks for the comment! I can guarantee that feeding a carrot one day and bolting the next are are not related. Horses usually bolt if they are startled or spooked, but there are many times that you will never actually know what it was that spooked them!

  7. I have trouble mounting my horse due to her training as a barrel racer. She does not stand still for me to mount. She goes in circles and when I finally get on, she walks on. I would like to give her a treat if she stands while mounting. I was told if the bit is in her mouth, she may choke if I give her a treat. Please comment.

    1. Hi Fran,

      I frequently feed treats to my horses with their bit in, and have never experienced a problem. I have also never heard of choking because of the bit, so I would say feed small treats and you will be fine.

  8. Hi Callie
    Thanks for the video. This might be a little bit of an obvious question, what do you use as treats? I want to do some trick training with my mini, but i am conscious of his weight. Any recommendations of tasty but healthy and effective option for him. Thanks
    Megan

    1. Hi Megan,

      It will depend some on the horse, they all have their preferences, but for the horses where I can concerned about weight, I put grain in that little pouch, so they get a little nibble of grain each time instead of an entire treat.

  9. I found your blog today and am also fairly new to riding. Every bit of information on horses is important and interesting to me. I have used carrots & apples to get reluctant horses out of the paddock or to follow me, then experienced the nosing behavior, so your distinction about before and after treats was very helpful.

  10. Hi CAllie, I found your blog a couple days ago and have been catching up on videos as I work. I inherited a horse about a month ago and I only see her about 3 times a week at best. She still lives at the lady’s (I got her from) house. Now I rode as a kid and ever since i have had a passion for horses. This opportunity fell in my lap and i jumped on it. Video after video, and some books, I find yours is the most help.

    Now on this subject, Diane catches her horses from pasture with treats. Which works great) but sometimes if we just stand at the fence and call them i think they expect a treat. When they find out we don’t have one of course they walk off. Any ways to make this a more positive thing for actually catching them not just when we are at the fence? Now I do know she gives them treats at the fence (i’ve seen her do it before) should we stop?

    1. Hi Mykalynn, Glad you are enjoying the blog! I would recommend making sure that the treats are only given after the horse is caught… not used as a lure. The reason is that if you lure the horses over with the treats, they won’t want to come or will be disinterested when they find you don’t have the food. If you give the treats after they are caught (maybe first when they just walk over, then after the halter is on, then sometimes when you are walking out the gate) they will learn to be caught and the food could come anytime, instead of as soon as they walk over. Feeding treats from the fence is fine, but I still like to incorporate a little game into it. Targeting is an easy one, and today’s video is about how to do that! I find that when there is a game involved the horses stay more involved than just walking over to the fence to collect food!

      1. I will definitely give that a try Callie! Thank you for the pointers. Its been an adventure so far. Izzy does not like the saddle either. She threw Diane’s husband off when he tried to mount. She has been ridden before just not in a long time…I would say about 3 years. So she needs a lot of attention to be able to ride again im guessing. So back to square one with her moving those hips. (or so i have gathered from watching TONS of videos) 😉

        1. Hi Mykalynn, sounds like you have a project on your hands then! The difficulty or ease of getting Izzy riding again will depend a lot on how her past experiences were…

  11. I just started treat-training with a horse who doesn’t seem to care about anything but food (all other methods weren’t workinng well) and it’s obviously working. I like your practice of making sure the horse has his head forward while receiving the treat – my horse started actually backing up while I was training him to stand for mounting, after he had stood still for the allotted amount of time (a slow count to ten), because he knew I was back there on the block with the treats, and he figured he would get it faster it he backed up to where I was, instead of waiting for me to step down and bring it up to him!
    I need to give him a treat for obeying commands while I’m riding him, but this means he has to crane his neck around to get it. This gets him in the habit of randomly craning his neck around anytime I’m sitting on him, to see if by any chance a treat is available. Can you think of a better way to give him a treat while riding, without encouraging this? (My husband joked that I need a tube that runs to his mouth.) This horse seems to regard praise not followed by a treat, as an empty promise, more annoying than reinforcing. He can’t seem to find treats thrown on the ground – and anyway, I wouldn’t want to train him to randomly start “grazing for treats” while being ridden.

    1. Hi Lorima,
      How to best give treats from the saddle is a very good question, I have not yet found a better way than simply leaning down either. I have heard that there is actually a contraction in exsistence that does involve a bit that puts out a squirt of sugar water when a button is pressed from the saddle – I have never actually seen or used this contraption and I’m not sure how well it would really work, but it is an interesting invention! There is some disagreement in the positive reinforcement world about random reinforcment and treatless clicks (praise without treats), it sounds as if you have already tried the treatless clicks and not had much success without that, but you could try making your rewards, and the praise, more random. This could get him less expectant of the treats or it could frustrate him depending on how often he is used to receiving the treats and how quickly you fade them out. One other option is to have food in a bucket in the center of your training area and allow him to go to the bucket for a reward. This may not be ideal depending on what you are training and of course you will have to make sure he doesn’t get too focused on that bucket and start trying to pull towards it, but it may be worth a try. I have used it in a few cases with horses that got really excited about food. One other think to think about is to practice standing still and rewarding (clicking) for head forward. So if you stop and he starts bringing his head back just ignore it, but then click when his head is straight again. Obviously he will still have to crane around to actually take his treat, but it could provide more reinforcement for “head straight”. I hope a few of these suggestions help – best of luck in your training!

  12. Great video. I have been told so many things about treats and horses, but mostly that they are bad during training. I think Callie nailed it when she advises against just handing them out. Make the horse work for it. That is what I’ve been doing with Pal. He was super pushy, always poking around my pockets because I taught him to. Now, when I go out with treats, he knows it means play time. He, like Callie said, turns into more of a dog, eager to find out what to do to get that treat. He’s getting so much better in our training because of the “clicker” training.

  13. Hi Callie,
    In the ranch where I take lessons they encourage us to give the horses treats when we are done with the class, only we first dismount, go get the treats while the groom takes the horse and takes off his bit, and then we approach them again and treat them. You can see all the horses move forward towards any rider that approaches them at this point, they are not nosey but tend to crowd you when you stand in front of them – like walk towards you and invade your space – until you start feeding them, and then they pull their heads up high if you try to pet them, I guess trying to still reach for your hand. Any insights or suggestions about this?
    Thanks so much for all your tips 🙂
    Gaby

    1. Hi Gaby,

      Horses will do whatever behavior they are reinforced for – in this case, moving towards a person and sticking their nose out for the food. When I am first training a horse with food I will stand beside them and only feed when they move their head away from me. Any other behaviors of nuzzling, moving closer, etc I just ignore. This way the horse learns that they only get fed by taking their head away from a person and waiting quietly instead of coming forward for the food. You could do the same thing in front of the horse by standing and waiting until they move their head away from you before feeding. Keep in mind that with behavior, there is something called a burst – this is where the horse will do more of the whatever behavior used to work before trying a new one. This means that many times a horse who is used to moving forwards and sticking his nose towards a person to recieve a treat will try doing more of that first before trying taking his head away. It’s all part of training, but it is am important concept to understand! I hope this helps, Callie

      1. Will do, Callie. And thanks for the heads up! I’ll bee attentive to her signs and let you know how it goes. You are a wonderful teacher!
        Gaby

  14. Hi Callie,
    I recently purchased a new horse and I cannot feed him treats. He will look for them in my pockets and he is very insisting all the time. Any tips on how I can work with that problem so he stopps begging for treats all the time?
    Thanks, br cindy

    1. Hi Cindy,
      Absolutely – begging is actually very common with horses in the beginning, but with consistency you can train him not to do this. Start standing at his shoulder. Allow him to nose you or nibble your pockets, but don’t give him any food. Stay still and only push him away if he starts biting or being dangerous. If he moves, simply move with him in order to remain at his shoulder. As soon as he turns his head away, step forward and grab his halter to keep his head straight, then feed him one of the treats. What you are doing is reinforcing “take your head away from me”. It probably won’t happen in one session but with time, he will learn that keeping his head away earns the rewards and having it in your face does not. Here is a video that shows some of this: https://crktrainingblog.com/horse-training/tips-for-handling-mouthy-biting-horses/

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