Updated: Aug 29, 2019
I often hear people say NEVER FEED TREATS. I like to say, Never say never.
I always feed treats. I train with treats and I celebrate with my horses with treats. My horses are not biters. Are they a bit pushy sometimes? Yes, but usually only when a new horse comes in and everyone is figuring out their place in the treat line. No one gets a treat if they are being pushy. No one gets treats if they go looking for one themselves. No one gets treats for offering me behavior I did not ask for.
So my treat giving has some boundaries around it.
I wanted to talk about horses that have a lot of anxiety about getting treats. Mikey loves treats, but can be quite neurotic about them. When he first got here he would paw before I gave him his grain. He would paw if he was feeling anxious about his hay and he would bob his head and sway side-to-side (weave) if he thought he might get a cookie. This was difficult because I could barely untie his halter.
He would weave like this after his halter came off and sometimes out on the track when he was trying to claim a hay net. Instead of calmly eating he would sway and sway and bob his head.
This was high anxiety. I called my vet and we discussed ulcers so Mikey has been on Gastro Guard and is almost done with his 3 weeks of that. Then I will follow up with Excel Ulcer Supplement by DePaolo.
I have seen a huge difference in his anxiety levels since being on the ulcer meds. But I have also worked with him about getting food. Grain, hay and treats.
When I give him his morning feed, if he starts to paw I will back him up. I’ll back him three or four steps and then wait. If he paws again, then I back him again. It didn’t take him long to figure that out. Most of the time he stands quietly until I put his pan down. I also feed him his feed first. This really helps with his anxiety and lucky me, neither Sky or Zorro have anxiety about food.
When feeding treats I set up boundaries with him. He was quite aggressive with the other horses if I had treats so he had to learn to back up and stand quietly. Then he would get a treat. At first I always had a halter on him when feeding treats with the other horses around so I could help him not be mean. He quickly learned my treat words, “good boy!” When I say that he will be getting a treat. If I only say “good” then he is doing a good job and should keep trying because the treat is coming! The jackpot is the “good boy!”
One thing I do is make sure to give him the same number of treats. So when I put his halter on he will get a treat, but only one. When I take his halter off he will get 3 treats. Every time. It doesn’t really matter how big the treats are as long as there are 3. Once he learned that he completely quite weaving and swaying when it came time to take off the halter. He will stand quietly and then lower his head for his treat when the halter comes off because the other thing I do is give him his treat down low, so he has to lower his head to get it. At first I always gave him a treat by holding it down low. Now I can offer him a treat at waist level and he won’t get anxious about it.
I recently shared a video on Facebook showing how well Mikey is doing with being fly sprayed. When he came here he was very scared of the spray bottle itself and would lose his mind once the spray came out. So we have worked very hard on that and he is coming around. To do this I used treats!
Horses seek, safety, food and companionship. So a great way to earn trust is to give them a safe, calm place to live, offer them good food and give them other horses to hang out with. I will hear people say they don’t want to use treats because they want their horses to like them not the food. I say, Who cares!? I don’t care if my horses come cantering to the gate when they see me because I have a treat or because they like me. I have a feeling they do it for BOTH reasons, but they do it. Every day.