Friday, December 12, 2014
Giving Horses Treats: The Difference Between Hand Feeding and Rewarding
We must understand when it is appropriate, and decide if the treat is just being nice to the horse, or if it should be a reward for reinforcing good behavior and training purposes.
If one is not careful in determining the difference, things can get out of hand in a hurry. What happens is you will have a one thousand pound animal pushing its way into your space, getting you hurt in a heartbeat. This can be detrimental in your relationship with your horse.
As a trainer, I have often been asked by horse owners whether it is a good idea to give out treats. Horse trainers most likely will say it is not advisable, as it not a natural habit for them to be hand fed. If your horse does not respect your space, introducing food into the equation will only add fuel to the fire. It is best that you have the knowledge of how to teach your horse to stay out of your personal space unless invited. Once they understand you are the boss and in control of the situation, you have to remember your personal safety is most important.
Talk with your trainer if you have questions on how you can teach your horse to stay out of your space. You must have a good relationship with your horse trainer. The knowledge they have will be very important information to you, saving you a trip to the hospital.
You must understand the difference between "treat" and "reward". A treat is something you give your horse because you feel like being nice. A reward is something you give your horse because he did something nice. A treat can be given as a reward, but a reward cannot be given as a treat. To understand this, you must recognize the play on the words. The horse always thinks it is being rewarded for something. For instance, "I was just standing in my stall with my head over the door, and in comes my owner handing me food." The next time the horse sees you coming in, it will put its head over the stall door, waiting for you to give it the food-and you give it to him. Soon enough,
your horse will nicker at you the moment you step foot in the barn, in anticipation of the food/reward.
Or in this instance, if you have a carrot or apple in your pocket, and your horse knows you carry those in your pockets, it will be nosing around your pockets in search of the treat. When you give it to him, you are reinforcing the behavior that is rewarding him sticking his nose in your pocket.
So how does one decide when to give a treat vs. a reward? Give the horse treats in his food bin
or bucket, never from your hand. Give a reward any time you want, anywhere you want. The difference is the horse must have done something to earn the reward. And yes, you may give the reward/treat from your hand at this time. In order for this to work, you have to teach him there is a certain place he has to be in order to get the reward, He must be standing still, and must have his head positioned in a place you want him to be. This gives the horse an incentive to keep trying in order to get the reward. Teaching your horse this "trick" takes time and patience, but in the end, the reward is definitely worth it.