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Food is a powerful motivator, and is a very useful tool in training. Using food when training horses is frowned upon by some out of the concern that feeding a horse will cause pushiness, biting, or a horse who is just always looking for a handout.

If food or treats are used inappropriately, they can absolutely cause all of the above behaviors, however when used well, food can make training more fun for the horse, create good associations around “scary” things, such as the horse trailer, and according to this study even remember their training longer.

When you do train with food, the type of food you use is important, and there are four ways to determine the best food to use for your horse. Hit play on the video below to learn more!


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37 Responses

  1. I am trying to teach my horse to stretch down more when lunging and doing a free walk so I started to teach the word “stretch” by holding a treat and taking it down to the ground as I say the word. She follows and gets the treat. I do this as I turn her out once I am done working her in the lunge or under saddle. I also say “good girl” or “beautiful” whenever I give her a treat so that she associates a positive verbal reinforcement that I can use when lunging or riding.

    1. Excellent job pairing your voice with the food Barb!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  2. I use peppermint treat disks sparingly. I like the disks as a few fit into the tiny pocket in my tights. Raven gets one after I stretch his front legs after cinching up. He willingly lifts his legs forward for this. He gets two more, one after each side to side neck stretch, when I mount up, which keeps him very still. I also use them, sparingly, to reward brave behavior on the trail, such as standing quietly in the muddy moat-like puddle that he was afraid of. Once he learned to stand in it, and not rush through, he got a reward.

    1. Leila, great use of very high value treats for when it counts the most. Keep up the good work 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  3. I am working on stretching, and I use thin carrot sticks because they seem to be easier for him to see and follow than grain or a cookie.

    1. Carrots are excellent treat for encouraging some stretching 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  4. I actually have found a neat sunflower hull based cattle pellet low in sugars etc and of a nice size and very economical (16$ for 50 pounds). The horses love it-has no molasses or any other carbs that I don’t want my little tele-tubby to get…transport easy and does have some minerals etc-that work well for my nutritional profile in this area. (Southern Colorado) There are small bits or bigger bits-or you can “saw up” the bigger bits into smaller bits.
    Great points Callie!

  5. I used to use carrots for some exercises like stretching and flexions, but I learned how to ask horses to do the exercises with no treats at all, and I never used them again

  6. I stopped giving any hand food to my horse . He was becoming entitled, dominant and disrespectful. I need to find another way to reward him that won’t affect our relationship. Your suggestions would be most welcome

  7. Hello. I recently rewarded my mare a few times to get her to stand still for saddling with some pieces of carrot. It worked. I like carrots, price is good, easy to handle and my mare likes them. I have never been big on using treat training but sometimes it turns out very effective, as in this case. ( and it’s become a necessity for training my puppy too!) happy training all!

    1. Amanda, carrots are always a great source for treats 🙂 Glad to hear that your mare is standing better for saddling now!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  8. I use food a lot in training. I am very careful as to how and when I administer the reward, and I do not have problems with inappropriate behaviors. I generally use small commercial treats (the smaller, the better), small pieces of carrots, or peppermints (never more than a few per session.) I have also used small pieces of apple for horses that find this a particularly high-value treat. I use thin carrot sticks for stretches. The horses I work with are mostly TBs with no dietary restrictions. I volunteer with OTTBs, and many of them have no experience with treats and are very skeptical of them. They will usually take the carrots. I will sometimes put a variety of food rewards in a feed bucket to see what the horse eats first to get a sense of their preferred reward. I have a routine in which I give the horse a treat when I halter it in the field, when I pick out its hooves, when I tighten the girth, and when I dismount at the end of a ride. (I want the horse to stop whenever I come out of the saddle.) If a horse has difficulty standing for mounting, I give a treat for standing quietly once I am on the horse. I also use treats for counter-conditioning scary things (like that groundhog that popped up outside the arena.) I find the horses do not mug me for treats as they know when to expect them. Also, I NEVER have to struggle with a hoof. After the first hoof, they generally pick up the others without being asked.

    1. I love your idea of letting the horse choose which treat has the highest reward for them – what a fun experiment! 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  9. I have been using small handfuls of my horse’s daily fibre ration to train him to stand still while I apply creams to his multiple sarcoids. It has a relatively low value but is part of his daily feed. He has been brilliant with it. He is a very mouthy gelding in general, but using treats, I have been able to teach him to turn his head away from me until I am ready to give him the reward. If I find that he starts getting a bit excited by the treats by hand, I continue rewarding, but put the treat in a small bowl for him to take, so that he gets out of the habit again of being pushy. Thank you for all your advice, Callie!

    1. Wonderful idea Louise! Using their own feed can be a great reward 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  10. My mule, who has a history of founder, and my mare love celery. It has a nice crunch to it 🙂 Beet Treats from Emerald Valley are also nice.

    1. Celery – that is one I’ve never thought of but great for horses with a history of founder since there isn’t any sugar!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  11. Beet pulp pellets are my go to treat. Very easy to carry and last a long time. I only give on or two at a time. I usually tap my horse’s shoulder before giving a treat reward as well.

    1. That is a great idea Sheila, I love that it is a great source of fiber for them too 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  12. I use a small commercial horse treat ( or a small piece of apple or carrot) when I put on my horse’s grazing muzzle. I just place it in the bucket of the muzzle and he sticks his nose right in without an argument.

    1. Elaine, we have quite a few horses in muzzles here at the farm and we often use this trick so they don’t run the other direction when they see the muzzle. Great idea!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  13. When teaching a young pony on the lunge I use pony nuts as a a reward for them learning to keep out on the circle and to become attentive to voice commands

    1. Lunging is a great exercise to use positive reinforcement Jane 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  14. I use treats small store bought ones. I do a lot of clicker training.
    Feed stores have good flex treats small low sugar, also do trick
    training with lots of success with these small treats.

    1. Marsha, those low sugar treats are wonderful for our easy keepers!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  15. I use alfalfa cubes for most treat work and often I pair my treating with a mouth “clock” to mark the behavior I’m reinforcing. I break the cubes into smaller pieces because some can be quite large. They’re healthy and all the horses like them. If I need a higher value treat, I use commercial treats or peppermints sparingly. My mare shares a pen with a yearling filly who has had a case of thrush. I can pick up all four hooves and clean out and treat the thrushy one on the yearling unhaltered, while my mare stands and watches, knowing she’ll get her treat when she’s done. None of the horses I’m around mug for treats because I’ve taught them not to. And horses are super fast to learn. I love positive reinforcement training.

  16. Thank you for posting this video and your other ones on positive reinforcement! I started training dogs using PR waaay before it was deemed ‘acceptable’ . There was much resistance in the dog community and now it’s almost the norm where I am located at least. I’m so encouraged that the horse community has begun to see this as a viable option as well! I still get some strange looks and subtle scoffing from other horse people at my choice in training methods, but there is no denying my horse is happy and well behaved 🙂

  17. I have read that giving treats by hand gives the horse the message that he is dominant over us as he is actually taking the treat off us and this is seem as weakness that the dominant animal would not allow. I feed hay and hard feed to my horses but do not hand feed at all. feedback appreciated on this .

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for your comment! Feeding by hand has nothing to do with dominance, it is purely a training tool that we can utilize to communicate with the horse.

      I’d love to have you click here to watch our video about dominance in horse training!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. I have a problem with my horse. When I pick up his hooves for cleaning, he refuses to give me the right hand , always the same one. After watching your video, I decided to use a small apple treat and it seems it’s working but the problem is that I find him very anxious and mouthy, looking for the treats the whole time. I’m not sure if I should keep on giving them.
    Thank you very much for your help!!

    1. Hi Nuria, you can try discontinuing the treats and see if that works! Could you have a helper give him a treat if it happens again where he won’t pick up a foot?

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  19. I have been using commerical treats – I look for the small ones as I give a lot of them in a session. I have been working with my gelding to “load up” on command & stay in the trailer. He has always been uncomfortable in the trailer and will either not load or come back out if he is the only horse in the trailer. Since using the treat training, he stands in there and waits for me to “release” him.

  20. I have used everything from commercial treats to human cereal (small amounts!) to bananas/ apples or hay. The human cereal can be given out in very small amounts. Usually I use it to get a horse out of the pasture away from his buddy. I also give a lot of scratches and petting because I don’t want the horse to always expect a food treat when I come to get him/her. For teaching them to load in the trailer, it is hay or something else that takes a while to eat. I might bury a special treat in there for them to find (apple or cut up alfalfa cubes), especially if they have been really reluctant to get on the trailer.

  21. I don’t often use treats, but the last two young horses I bought were both chewers at the hitching rail. Anyway – I was not impressed with the hitching rail being chomped the moment my back was turned (even with CribStop). I decided to use carrots sliced into pieces instead and would feed them while the horse was tied to the hitching rail. They very quickly learnt carrots were much nicer and would stand in anticipation while I walked inside the barn, did things and finally returned with some carrot.
    Gradually increasing the timing… it worked and I now only occasionally feed carrots as “revision”
    Note: the young horses are now 6 (just on 7 – officially) and any “stress” re saddling up is also long gone.

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