Saturday, September 5, 2009

I Just Gotta Say....

I found my comment going on and on and on.....

So now it's a post. This treat thing is enough to make me nuts. Here's really and truly my last post on treats.

I don't care if you use treats (food). It's simply that I don't. I have tried to tell you why, but all this does is bring up waves of defense from those who train with food.

I don't use food to train my horses, but to my mind they still get treats. Since when is a release, a rest or a stroke on the neck not a treat? So I guess it comes down to what I want my horse to work for.

Do I need to phrase it differently? If I use the word treat in place of rest, release, pat on the neck, will it make you guys feel better?

I don't mind if you disagree with me, but please understand I'm not going to sit back and agree with you either. There will be arguing, but not meaness, at least on my part.

Just for general info, I don't train dogs or kids with food either.

I was on a walk with my Mother and my dogs one day. Another hiker was coming towards us on the trail with a large, lunging Lab on a leash. We got off the trail and I told my dogs to sit and stay. Since my dogs were off leash and I have an opinionated Rat Terrier I was holding up one finger and keeping an eye on them. My dogs were being pretty good, but I had to keep wiggling my finger to keep the Rat's attention. The women passed us and by this time she had hoisted the Lab up and was dragging him by his collar with only his hind feet on the ground and she said, "My dog would do that for a pocket full of treats too."

I'm not 100 percent sure what she meant. Was she sneering at my dogs because they were behaving? Did she wish she had brought treats? I'll never know. I would have given her some had there been any in my pocket, but there wasn't. I gave my dogs their normal treat, a rousing "Good dogs!!!!" and a pet. Exactly how I praise my kid or my horses. Well, kinda. I guess I don't call my kid or horses, "dog"....

mlk - her example in the comments is the reason I don't want my horse to feel she can be in my space. Ever. Which includes taking food from my hand. Any horse, any time, can freak. They are huge. They can kill us. I want to think my horse has a solid muscle memory built in to stay off me at all costs. Then if or when she mentally checks out I can rely on the physical muscle response to be away from me. I am willing to wager mlk and the vet didn't get hurt because the horse was hard-wired to stay off people.

I know it works. From years of experience. I have never been smashed by one of my horses or a horses I've had for at least 30 days. I have had them panic. They have jumped, reared, bolted for different reasons. The only horses I've had knock me down, over, into fences etc. were problem horses who came in for training. All of these problems came from how they were handled.

The worst injuries I've ever sustained came from horses who's owners loved them so much they played "games" instead of taught them manners, and showered them with carrots or horse candy so they knew their horses loved them best. When discipline problems arose and the games and cookies quit working I got called in. As a matter of fact it was one of those horses who ended my training career.

I've never been hurt by an unhandled horse either, be it a mustang or a two-year-old off the range. My injuries came from horses who were handled.This is what got me going on teaching horses to honor my space at all times. Because I really started thinking about how important it is to factor in what we don't do as much as what we do when it comes to training our horses.

Positive and Negative space. How my body language tunes to my horses. How I manipulate the air between us to create the behavior I want. I want my training to become increasingly nuanced. I want to get to a response from a shift, a sigh, a turn of my hand. I can't get any of this if I have to break the moment, intrude on the space, disrupt my connection so I can dig out an apple-flavored horse cookie and goober up my bit.

I have seen great riders treat their horses with food. So I won't say it's bad. I will say, over and over it's not my approach. I guess I'm not a good enough trainer to overcome the result of hand feeding my horses.

Now I'm done with hand-feeding.

Let me give you my Pete up-date. My little bay gelding, Pete, is doing well. He has come from being unable to follow a trail without falling off the side to a reliable, steady companion in the mountains. Except last weekend when he decided to reenact a mustang stampede and threw an extremely good bucking fit as we loped up a hill. I stayed on, he had to lope up the hill a few more times and all was good.

Which is a damn good thing. Because on Wed. evening I took him out for a short trail ride on the mountain he lives on. We had a nice start, he is getting good on his feet and beginning to enjoy going exploring.

We rode up and down a narrow, winding trail and ended up on the forest service road which takes us back to the barn.

We were headed home when Pete topped short, crouched like a cutter on a heifer and spun around. Those of you who read me regularly know I keep my reins loose through a spook and wait to see what my horses feet do.

Normally, if Pete spooks hard enough to spin around the other way he will take a step or two, then turn around and look at what scared him.

This time we were at least 25 yards up the service road before I got my reins gathered and stopped him. I had forgotten just how much power is in those Smart Smoke butts.

Pete stopped. We turned and stared down the road. It wasn't dark yet, but the shadows had lengthened and deepened and color in the trees was starting to fade.

Pete is not a spooky horse.

He was frozen into the ground, his head flung up and his eyes bugging out of his head. I was pretty much doing the same thing.

We sat there for a few minutes, straining to see what was down there.

I couldn't see or hear a thing. Of course the thing in the road was between us and the barn.

Then I heard a rustling in the scrub oak in the gully to our left.

Pete didn't even flick an ear at the rustling. He kept staring down the road.

The rustling got more pronounced. I kept glancing to the left, then staring down the road.

Then the rustling became quite a bit louder and two deer popped out of the brush. Normally if I surprise deer in the mountains they at least trot off. These two walked past us. They came within 10 feet of us as they headed to their trail on the other side of the road. Their ears and eyes were pointed exactly where Pete's were. Down the road.

They didn't even glance at us. Pete didn't look at them either.

I didn't need anymore convincing.

I turned Pete around and we headed back up the road to a trail that would take us up the side of the mountain and above the road.

He walked out and kept flicking an ear behind us, but he stayed calm and on a loose rein.

We got on the trail and headed back to the barn again. Pete was quiet and level, so I began to relax. It was getting darker and the trail was getting harder to see. I kept my reins loose and shook out my legs so I could relax into my seat.
I knew Pete could see the trail just fine, so I turned the controls completely over to him.

Pete stopped again. This time he stared down the mountainside. I felt my stomach clench. I wasn't sure we could even get turned around on the trail. There was mountain going up on my left and mountain going down to my right. I followed the direction of Pete's ears and peered into the darkness. I still couldn't see or hear a thing.

Pete snorted a hard warning blast through his nose. Then he did it again.

When I was a little girl and got into a tight spot, I used to say the "Our Father" over and over again. I found my self whispering "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit," in the same sing song rhythm of my childhood prayers. There might be something profound there, but I was too scared to think about it.

Pete decided to keep going on the trail. I just became a passenger at this point. There wasn't a single element under my control anymore. I had to trust in Pete's better sense of sight and smell and for the first time with this horse, count on the partnership I hoped we had developed.

I swear he tip-toed down that trail. He placed his feet so carefully his shod hooves didn't make a sound. There was no clink on the rocks, no crunch of gravel, nothing.

All I could hear was our breathing and the pounding of my heart. I could feel Pete's heart thudding against the calves of my legs.

We both jumped when the branch of a bush slapped against Pete's flanks as it sprung back from our passing.

About a quarter mile from home Pete sighed, dropped his head and began to speed walk along. Whatever had been out there was past us.

I swallowed a few times, my dry throat telling me I had turned into quite the mouth breather up on the trail. At least I didn't wet my pants.

We made it back to the barn without incident. One of the boarders told me the Forest Service guys had stopped by to say the bear were all over the scrub oak and they had seen a mountain lion earlier in the week.

I don't know which one it was on the road, but I do know Pete and I have gone up a step in our progress. I know when it counts, I can trust him as much as he can me.

I gave him an extra flake of hay and threw a couple pieces of the BO's horse candy in his tub.

So I guess I do give my horses treats.


  1. Wow!

    I need to breath. Exhale. Inhale.

    He did deserve a treat after that!

    I won't go into when I do give treats, but there are just times.

    Like that one.

    Wow. Again.


    You can read about my second trail ride, but not so dramatic as Janet's.

  2. I handfeed but not to excess, and I'm extremely cautious about it with young horses. If they show any sign of getting grabby, nippy, etc. that is the end of the handfeeding and treats go in their bucket in their stall at the end of the ride only.

    The funniest thing I have EVER seen is a clicker training person giving treats to her horses AS she rode. They would lope one circle around the arena, slam on the brakes and whip their heads around to her knee to get their treat from her belt pouch. I LOL'ed! How would you EVER show that horse? It'd be in the lineup twisting itself into a pretzel looking for its reward!

  3. My last boss kept treats in her pockets and would give them while riding. She had a mare who was very Sonitaesque.
    When I rode her we rode along fine, but she was extremely skittish and tough.
    When the boss rode her she would shovel treats into her everytime she thought the horse was going to spook, or jump, whatever.
    The first time she showed her the mare started to spook at something on the rail while they were loping their first set of circles.She then stopped and whipped her head back hunting a treat.
    My God.

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  5. OMG.
    What a good horse you have got!
    I wouldn't dare to ride out on trail with bears and mountain lions around.
    Pete really did a good job there.
    It is a wonderful feeling to be in a tight spot where you have to rely on your horse to get you out of it, and they just step up and do the job.
    You can be proud of him, Mugs.
    What a good boy.
    And I am happy that you returned home safely.
    Is it often you have bears and mountain lions around? What will you do with trail riding in the closest future?

  6. HOC- My city is a little bizzare. We have bear, coyote and lion sightings right in town all year.
    Not everyday mind you, but at least two cat sightings a year and countless bear and coyote sightings.
    My house backs into a large, natural park, which backs into the mountains, so we have bear and coyote right in our streets.There is not a single outdoor cat in my neighborhood, at least not for long.
    Pete is kept on a mountain about five miles from my house. In the fall the bear are fattening themselves for winter, so they are busy thinking about food, not us. So there are a lot of sightings.

    The mountain lion is a little freakier. They usually stay higher in the hills and avoid people.

    A few years ago the news showed a video of a lion dragging a deer through the Broadmoor Hotel golf course, during a tournament. In broad daylight. That one is famous around here.

    I'll still go ride, but earlier in the day. Being out at dusk was stupid.

  7. Okay...the treats. Am eating supper and can't resisit.

    Starlette gets one for coming to me in the pasture when she knows we are going to ride (she used to run from me). She gets one sometimes when I am grooming her for a ride...she was awful on the crossties with pinning, etc., when I got her and that worked. (Did not work on Toby, my ex-border). Gets one after I am done riding. Gets them if we have visitors, or if my husband comes out to the barn to talk with me (he is determined to teach her to come at his whistle, which has not worked yet as he is not consistant with it).

    She gets them buried in her hay in the trailer. She knows they are there, and it's made loading easier. I am not actually giving them to her...she is associating the trailer with apples. Don't know how that came about, maybe my instinct, but it seems to work.

    Cooper rarely gets hand treats. He is too pushy and has really bad manners. He will nip. Sometimes he will get one, then we walk away because he'll get in your space for the second one. He only gets the first one if he stands nicely. Guests are not allowed to hand feed him. On the ground only.

    I will put treats in their dishes.

    They either get carrots, or apples (if in season - I have four trees!).

    I've read about treats while riding...Duh! Even I can see where that would lead! Teach some more bad manners to your horses!

    Okay, back to my trailer project ;O

  8. Mugwump, that's all I was hearing/seeing recently. But one night a couple weeks ago I was coming home late and came across a bob cat and her kittens. My eyes almost popped out of my head. I've never heard of them living around here and judging by your posts I don't live too far away from you.

  9. Congratulations on the "partnership and trust" you've built with Pete. My heart was racing while reading your story.

  10. Geez you're a good writer. I think I held my breath through that whole story. And I'd like to applaud you for listening to your horse when he was (sincerely) scared and not forcing him down the trail. Big cats and bears are a little different than all those horse eating rocks...!

    At the boys' ranch we feed treats, but only at a very specific time. After a ride when the horse has been unsaddled and brushed off, and right before they untie them to release them back into the pasture, the boys give their horse a cookie or two. I think technically they're cheap "horse feed"- I buy them in 50lb bags. It's the last thing the horse remembers before they're turned out, and it's a way for the boys to remain in gratitude and thank their horse for the ride (again). I get a kick out of it when they think I don't notice when they sneak a couple extras in. The horses all know the routine.

    Having said that, I completely understand the no hand feeding policy and would immediately revert to that if any horse showed signs of nipping or other bad behaviors associated with treats.

  11. I used to hand feed treats. But my trainer, my daughter, mugwump, and my horse have convinced me to alter how I feed treats. Only when I am not in the stall on arrival. Only when tied after riding. Because he was becoming more pushy, more mouthy, and I was becoming more ticked off. So now he gets treats coupled with training goals. Be quiet (instead of screaming) when I walk into barn, a treat thru the feed window. Be quiet and tie easily after a ride, a treat. Bingo

    Loved the trail story. Wish I thought my guy would be as steady.

  12. "A few years ago the news showed a video of a lion dragging a deer through the Broadmoor Hotel golf course, during a tournament. In broad daylight" OMG. Been to that hotel. That freaks me out.

    Last summer a chihuaha treed a mountain lion in the backyard of a house across the street from my stables. AHAHA! Still can't figure that one out....

  13. Excellent point about training a horse to keep OUT of our space.
    My BO had the bad timing to switch on the arena sprinlker while I was bending checking my mare's front leg tendons. I am convince it was my mare correct training that made her to bolt FORWARD and not on top of ME O_o

    I hold my breath all the second part of your post, brilliantly written story. I am new to your blog, so I do not know Pete's age. Do you think his horse-common sense comes from living in the hills? Does he live in a big herd?

    Regarding training, you are very brave or perhaps dumb or you just enjoy picking up fight ^-^ to express your beliefs. The horse world's bigotry is strong and terrifying, it is like speaking about mothering and children education. Any subject is a can of worms.

    Thank for writing so beautifully about No-BS horse-common-sense horsemanship!


  14. Glad Pete was a good partner for you.

    I respect your method as far as not treating, I think it's a sound one and it's obviously worked very well for you. I don't use treats in my everyday work, except for a couple weeks earlier this summer where I'd give a mint every time the girls came in from the pasture. They now come trotting up when called, stop politely at the gate, and wait to be haltered. Love it.

    I'm perfectly willing to use treats or clicker-work to get through an issue on the ground if I feel like it's necessary...just haven't gotten to the necessary point yet.

    You've given me some food for thought on 'horses must stay out of my space at ALL times.' I sure don't ever want to be run over. Hmm.

  15. Oh Boy! You had me sh*tting my pants right along with you! To have the deer walk out like that and then have Pete concerened again...

    Would have been an interesting photo from third person perspective.

  16. I used to use treats until my daughter took our fjord gelding to horse camp one summer. All the little girls thought he was adorable and fed him anything and everything. He came home an absolute ass. Occasionally they have an apple cut up in their grain pans, but NEVER from hand. Ever. I will not and cannot have a mugger with little children running around wanting to "pat horsie". The story with Pete is fabulous. I could feel the fear from both of you..what a wonderful horse.

  17. I feed treats, but I'm also very strict about anything but the most polite behavior with Miss Mocha. She finds other ways to issue those tiny challenges...and she will shamelessly mug my husband, because if she even gives him a pleading look, he'll give her a treat.

    However, I use food treats for ground training purposes. I want her to come to the door of the stall she's in, so she gets a treat when she comes forward. I want her to wait and face the stall door until I take her halter off and release her, even if there's yummy alfalfa in her feeder, so I use a treat for incentive. These days she doesn't need my hand on the lead to enter the stall after me, or turn to face the door. She's standing there, waiting. Even with yummy alfalfa in the feeder.

    At liberty, coming in from turnout, she'll stand three feet away from me and extend her neck to full length to get her food treat, and stand there while I either put the halter on or snap my lead to the halter. A few times early on, I backed her up pretty far when she got too close and too greedy about treats. Now she keeps her careful distance.

    I also use food treats for stretching exercises.

    I don't give food treats under saddle. A soft "good girl" and a pat works for her, and I try to use it consistently when she responds correctly to something I've asked her to do. She seems to recognize the words and respond, so I know those words are in her vocabulary as a reward phrase.

  18. Damn, that's awesome - the Pete story that is.

  19. What an exhilarating story! Wow! I can't imagine the adrenaline rush - but also the incredible feeling when you realized how deep your bond with Pete was. Nice example of a true partnership.

  20. Wow how cool was that?! What a very, very good boy Pete is! And how awesome that you know the signs he was giving you!

    Wasn't fun while you were going thru it but sure was fun to read on the other side!!

    I think that is the biggest thing you guys and gals (trainers) have going for you as a trainers - you have the experience under your belt! You KNOW horses and have seen enough and done enough to know what to expect and what it means.

    I've had 2-3 in my entire life so I don't always "get" the signs or when my horse is being pushy in a subtle way etc. Esp. with young ones that are learning while I'M learning bout how to train the young ones too.

    Like would I be the complete dumba%& who would force a horse to go when the horse was giving signs there was danger but the monkey on the horse's back thought he was just being naughty? Geez, I sure hope not!

    I'm learnin! And it's cool... and every new experience is one more thing to add to my little tool box of riding. I'm glad I have a great person to work with as my trainer who can help me figure it out!

    I know there are 2 sides with treats... I give my horses cookies when I'm all done riding, grooming, untacking etc and sometimes randomly just for fun I will go out and give my old man of 31 yrs a big ol' handful o' cookies.

    I don't really look at treats as a big training tool, just as a feel good thing (for me) after we are all done. And sometimes I forget the cookies and sometimes I run out of cookies and haven't made it to the feed store and to me, it's just never a big deal.

    I guess I did use them once to keep a horse IN the trailer vs. rushing out backwards... if he rushed out we loaded up again and tried over... if he stopped when I said whoa, I'd give him a cookie... if he rushed out, we'd just load up again and do it as many times as we needed til he stopped when I said whoa at 1 step, 5 steps, 3 steps, 2 steps....

    I tried that after reading your post 'bout that trail horse you'd plant a coffee can of grain further and further out on the trail and then you'd loosen the cinch and take her home for bein' good and going out on the trail and now she packs all over for her owner.

    I thought that was really cool -

  21. I'm glad we have no people-eating animals in Australia, except for the Far North where there are crocodiles. Well, and sharks. And snakes. But yeah, no animals with fangs stalking us in the south here!

  22. My horse gets treats because I like giving them to her.

    That said, I have to be very careful to give them only under very set circumstances, or she will get very pushy. So every time I go to the barn, I have some carrot pieces or apple slices, and she gets treats in the following circumstances *only*:

    1. When I hook her leadline in turnout. (I sometimes skip this one.)
    2. *Very* occasionally, if I am leaving her on the crossties for more than a minute to go get something, use the loo, etc.
    3. She gets 2 "carrot stretches" on each side after a ride. When I bought her, she could barely reach around, and now she will touch her flank with her nose. So I think treats help here!
    4. Upon loading on the trailer, she gets a couple of bites of grain. This is the *only* thing her breeders gave treats for. My success in rehabbing her for trailering has turned out to depend on following their trailering routine as exactly as I can. The rehab started with her getting a bite of grain just for putting her hooves on the ramp for a few seconds, and 4 months later she self-loads and self-unloads willingly and safely, as she did when I bought her.

    5. When good local apples are in season, I will play an "apple game" with her. I take a bite of apple and she gets a bite *only* if she backs off and doesn't push me for it. We will do this until the apple is gone, so if she's very good she gets half of it, and if she's very bad she gets none. "I control your access to food" is key in working with her.

    6. When I ride her on the road, she can have a bite of (unsprayed) roadside grass if she's gone past something scary without spooking, and often when we get as far as we are going, and it's time to go home, I'll let her graze for a minute or so. And I will stop her a few times on the way back. It makes her slightly less motivated to get back to the barn as quickly as possible. She does NOT get grass if she tries to get it without me cuing her for it; in that case she gets pushed on!

    At the end of each visit to her, whatever "treats" are left over get put in her grain bucket.

    Now I do sometimes backslide, and that leads to extreme pushiness.

  23. Now, I won't give my dogs treats as part of the training exercise because I've compartmentalized dogs and horses.

    As I see it, and don't have any real evidence to back it up, dogs view us as part of their pack. Packs work together to kill, eat and to protect and raise young. We leaders of the pack (or should be), we feed them, they protect us; it's a pack thing and they get that.

    Horses on the other hand although they are herding animals they don't work as a "pack." The herd offers them some protection and they do work in concert to protect each other, they don't work as a unit as pack animals do.

    It takes a lot to get them to 1) Trust us and 2) Respect us. Instilling trust is where treats come into play.

    Although it's probable that if horses respond to treats well, dogs would also. It just isn't how I've done it.

    Quite frankly, I never thought about it before: I use treats for horses and not for dogs... Interesting.

  24. Oh yeah, my dogs BETTER sit quietly when I tell them to...

    And I don't use treats all the time for horses. Treats are only for special times.

  25. I give treats once in a great while but nothing more then a treat. They are usually lose in the pasture being horses. I don't like in your face horses, a friend my mom had helping her out while I was away always gave them treats. I don't know how long it took to break the habit on all the horses when I got home. I was insane, none of them had the habit before I left.

    That story was amazing kept me on the edge of my seat.

    I was riding a mare at a ranch one time, and she stopped dead then I heard the rattle and that mare backed up so damn fast. This was a mare that didn't like reverse but she sure knew what it was that day. I always check and listen before correcting my horse inappropriate behavior on a trail ride because I know there sense are better then mine. If my horse don't go forward on a trail there is usually a damn good reason.


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  27. stilllearning said: I don't mean to sound cranky. I'm just amazed that this discussion continues....

    Well you do sound cranky and since the discussion is about treats, it will continue because people are interested in it.

    What you or Mugs or anyone else does or a says about it isn't going to change my mind either. It is a open discussion however, so it will continue until people either tire of it (like you) or Mugs does another post. It's just how it goes.

  28. Good boy Pete!! That was a pretty exciting end to a pleasant ride...geez! It sure was interesting to read how the deer were handling the situation and Pete had the same instinct...very cool to be able to trust him.

    No bears around here, but lots...too many coyotes and there are bob cats and mountain lions, but I've yet to see a mountain lion. Two weeks ago, Colt and I flushed out 7 coyotes at one time from their den up on our hill...they just kept coming out...that was a lil' spooky.

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  30. Oh My Word!!! I would definitely not be riding at dusk anymore. Good Pete! And good Mugs!

    And how about if we call whatever we do to reward behaviors we like reinforcements? Would that make everyone happy? That covers both food and rest and neck scritches.

  31. Who knew that treats were such a hot topic! wow.

    Great Pete story. We have mountain lions, bob cats, foxes and coyotes but no bears - thankgoodness. I have yet to see a mountain lion on the trails but my hubby heard one behind our house the other day. I really didn't believe him until our neighbor said he heard it too. Very scary. The thing with mountain lions is that you probably won't see them, but they see you all the time. We were riding at dusk one night, on a steep brushy trail with a mountain on one side and a drop off on the other and my wonderful husband says "I am surprised that we haven't seen a mountain lion" of course this was not the thing to say. All I could think about for the rest of the ride home was all the eyes that were watching us and waiting to find the right moment to pounce!

  32. Mugs:

    You win your bet (re: if anyone got hurt when my gelding panicked and WHY we didn't get hurt).

    I feel like a slightly broken record, but: another great post. Thanks for them!

  33. kel-you got it. I keep thinking I would have heard a bear. They are noisy and don't really care if you see them.

  34. I really enjoyed both parts of your post, Mugwump. You obviously know how to listen to a horse!

    I'm not averse to treats, when used properly. I won't defend and explain; I don't think it's that big a deal. It's just one tool in my toolbox; and I think "pressure and release" is usually best with horses.

    Fugs, that's a funny image of the clicker trainer and her horse. But if she's doing it right, she won't have to worry about it happening in the ring. "Right" means the horse *only* does that when he hears the click. He won't hear it in the ring!

    Done right, the behavior that gets click-treated becomes behavior the critter does for pleasure - in other words, it becomes its own reward.


  35. Any tool can be used correctly...or not. The one type of horse that I will give treats from the saddle is a horse that have been abused to the point of 'locking down' mentally, and then exploding. A cue, then a treat, can help get them to focus on you. Use a cue first to keep them from anticipating and trying to bully. Wean them as quickly as possible. A few things that work to encourage a green horse to be comfortable are carried on by the human far too long.

    As with all things horse related, you have to think of the boundaries and consequences and circumstances...BEFORE you start a process that may spoil the horse.