“Treats make them into pickpockets and beggars…”
I made a note of this quote when a fairly well known horseman came up with it at a clinic I was watching some time ago. There was an audible intake of breath around the arena and much quiet conversation among the spectators as they tried that opinion out for size. It certainly rang a bell with me and I could guess at the frustration behind that bold statement. My first thought was “There’s got to be a blog in that!” To set out my stall – I have nothing against treating horses, if that is what you want to do. I use treats from time to time when I want my horses to have a nice association about something they aren’t really keen on. Used carefully I don’t really see the harm.
For an example let’s think about the summer task of putting fly spray and sunscreen on horses. The accepted method for many is to first capture the horse, possibly when it has its head in a feed bowl. One will then usually take a firm grip on the lead rope and chase the horse around in circles until some fly spray has ended up on the body. By which time the handler may have inhaled at least an equal amount of the spray and dodged some hooves but hey, no pain no gain isn’t it? Then to apply the sunscreen a firm grip has to be got on the nose, while the other hand is dabbled in whatever sunscreen is the choice of the season. Bring the dabbled hand up swiftly and hopefully apply sunscreen liberally to the nose in one easy swipe that the horse will hardly notice. We all know it’s seldom that easy. For a start the horse knows what’s coming and will be backing away as soon as a hand approaches the nose, making it really hard to get the other hand dabbled in the sunscreen and resulting in something resembles a person tied between to two horses that then gallop in opposite directions. Small people like me can often be seen hanging grimly to a horse nose with both feet waving in the air as their hair mysteriously turns white, yellow or pink depending on the colour of the lotion. I followed these ancient traditional methods for many years, indeed I had been taught it by experts.
These days I like an easy life, I’m a pensioner after all… in the summer I have three horses in an open field who will have a more relaxed time (hopefully!) if I put some fly spray on them. Two of those horses have pink noses that get sunburned, so I also need to put some sunscreen on them. I learned years ago to use approach and retreat and yielding of the head to get my gang to be reasonably nice about the process, but they weren’t exactly enthusiastic about it. This meant that some days, particularly on days when I needed to be somewhere else, they would have a mass rebellion and decide to run away at the merest hint of a spray bottle. Fortunately I got a blinding flash of the obvious and put some treats in my pocket one day. Now I can walk boldly into the field with spray bottle and sunscreen pot in hand and it’s no bother. On a good day they might even run to me to save my legs. Fair enough, Celebrity does have a certain air of resignation and quiet protest about him, but without a halter he will allow me to put a hand on his nose and will drop it so that I can powder him liberally. He knows that one hand holds a Hilton Herbals and obviously considers it a fair deal.
In all I’d say treats can be a good thing but used judiciously and with boundaries in place. I never, ever have one of my horses trying to be a pickpocket – I simply wouldn’t allow it. That would be begging. I don’t think it qualifies as begging however for them to remember that if they put up with a certain thing, they will get something nice for their troubles. It they’ve done good, why not let them know with a bit of a reward? Bearing in mind of course that if you know your horse’s favourite places for a good old scratch or scrumble they might appreciate that just as much. My approach is to use treats hardly ever, but scratches all the time and it seems to work for us.
Personally, I hate it when a horse is on top of me looking for treats, or constantly diving at my hands in case they hold something edible. That’s not acceptable to me because I would like my horses to come to me because they want to hang out with me, not because they see me as a treats dispenser. It you don’t mind your pockets being searched then I’m fine with that of course, whatever floats your boat; this blog is just my personal opinion. When I deal with a horse that expects food for everything I just feel uncomfortable, it feels as if their focus isn’t really on me, but just on the anticipation of food. Just feels wrong and not altogether safe to me. Dealing with my horses, I always I bear in mind that not everyone who comes to have a chat with them will understand how to be around them, or how to set boundaries if they get pushy. I want little people to be able to come to pat them and wave their hands about without the risk of getting their fingers bitten. I want my “mature” friend Barney to be able to lean on his crutch to brush them without getting pushed over. I want my horses to be nice to be around, and they are. They see the people, not the treat dispenser maybe?
Treating seems to be used quite a lot in liberty work, which is known as “playing” in some circles. (The difference between liberty “work” and “play” – oh dear, I feel a whole other blog coming on so won’t side-track!). Anyway, I love liberty work. I know some “real riders” pour scorn but that’s up to them. I think liberty is a fascinating whole other area of training that you and your horse can explore with all six feet on the ground. A real communication between two bodies and minds if done well. A demonstration of drilled, repetitive training if not done so well I guess. So what about the horse that is constantly treated when working at liberty? I have watched lots of people running around arenas with horses at their heels and a bum bag around their waist (that’s a fanny pack for our US friends, source of much amusement to us Brits!) The people look to be having fun and plenty of exercise but is it a demonstration of harmony and communication between human and equine? Is the horse connected to the person or the bum bag? Is the horse feeling the dance or chasing the next mouthful? Pat Parelli says something along the lines of liberty being the truth. I think I agree with him, and in his case the truth is that liberty is the end result of some fairly assertive horse training. In the case of the treat-trained horse I wonder if the truth is that the relationship is with the person or the food? Watching the expressions of many of the horses I think it’s with the food and that leads me to ponder on whether they are being taught to be beggars.
Some treat trainers seem to manage to get a pretty good balance, with their horses looking engaged and relaxed, and you can see there is a relationship there beyond the food. With others I’m not sure. I’ve got to say I’ve been disturbed by some demonstrations I’ve seen where the horse has been searching for a right answer when they’ve been given no clue. To watch a horse running through it’s repertoire of tricks and looking expectantly at the treat bag is uncomfortable to me. It feels demeaning and wrong and I can’t help but wonder if it’s really any less stressful than more directive training. A horse searching desperately for the right flag to touch might come into my begging category.
So do I agree with that horseman, that “treats make them into pickpockets and beggars…”? For me the answer is – it depends. It depends on the visible response of the horse concerned. If they take the treat and the deal is done then no problem. If they push on people, mug or beg for treats they have surely been made to be pickpockets beggars and they deserve so much more than that.
Over to you folks – feel free to comment as always.
With Steve Halfpenny of Light Hands Equitation –
20th – 22nd July – 3-day clinic in Gloucester, venue tbc
26th July – 29th July – 4-day clinic, Dormansland in Surrey
30th July – 2nd August – 4 day clinic, Dormansland in Surrey
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