Look, your horse is a terror.
He kicks the walls, bangs on his door, and paws incessantly in the cross ties. If you so much as hold out your hand where he can see, he lunges for what he thinks must be a treat with no concern for fingers.
Do you know why? Because you’ve trained him to be like that. Yes, that’s right. You created this monster and I am the one that has to deal with it.
“But I want him to love me!” You say.
First of all, that’s a bit pathetic and you should probably be seeing a therapist. More importantly, now that I’ve lost all respect for you as a horse person, you need to get it through your head that food does not equal love.
Is it sensible to keep a few cookies on hand so that your time together is a bit more positive for your horse? I guess so. I won’t say it’s not.
Can treats be an effective training tool in certain situations? Absolutely.
Bringing a treat along when you go get him from the paddock, giving him one when he loads onto the trailer, or otherwise tying that positive association into something that might be outside his comfort zone makes sense.
But they won’t make him love you.
When your horse nickers for you as you walk down the aisle, that’s not love. He’s whinnying in anticipation of the arrival of his treat bag on legs. If a walking bottle of wine came toward me and poured me a glass whenever I demanded it, I’d be happy to see it as well.
But it still wouldn’t be love.
It’s very nice to give your horse a treat when he does something good. Right away, as soon as it happens, or he will not understand what he’s being rewarded for.
Plying him full of cookies does not make him snuggle into his shavings at night secure in his knowledge that he is loved. That is not how horses’ brains are wired, because they live in the moment. So if that was your intention, you may as well give it up.
Also, it doesn’t make a difference whether or not the cookies are homemade, no matter what your animal psychic says.
When you give him a whole tub of carrots three hours after a class to reward him for a clear round, that’s for your own satisfaction. I promise you that he is not making the correlation between the carrots and his good behaviour earlier in the day.
When you enter the groom stall and he snaps at you and you go “aw, snookums just wants a cookie,” I promise you that you’re not doing anyone any favors. Not yourself, because his lack of respect for you on the ground translates directly into his attitude under saddle. Not his future owner, if you ever need to sell him. And certainly not me, his groom, the person that has to deal with his crap all day while you breeze in for a couple hours, just long enough to reinforce his nasty habits.
Do you know what your horse wants from you more than anything else? Consistency. The same discipline and reward no matter what kind of mood or hurry you are in. You can’t buy a tub of that from the tack store, though, so it’s not as appealing to you.
Your horse is not just your little snookums! He’s not just a pet! He is a 1,200lb member of equine society, and it is your responsibility to make sure he can act with a shred of decency.
So please, I’m begging you, stop feeding your horse so many treats.
About the Author
Morgan Withers is a professional groom on the “A” circuit who has been there and done that and then done that and been there some more for good measure.