"Your horse is not your dog"

A client came up with this post's title as I was discussing with her my recent, um, "frustration," at watching a video of a trainer using outright bribery with food to get a horse to accomplish a task that was clearly making the horse uncomfortable and stressed. Yes, I could be opening a can of worms with this topic. Preface- I am NOT saying ALL treats are bad. I'm not saying you can't ever feed your horse a yummy snack. I'm not saying there is ONLY one way to do things when interacting with the horse.
My shock was seeing there were 13,000+ social media "likes" as to watching this particular horse go through the motions of the task. There was no thought whatsoever (literally looking off in the distance avoiding where his body was) as to what he was physically doing. You could see this from how he put himself in an uncomfortable, unbalanced stance with his feet. On top of which, the minute the gal increased slight energy only using the lead rope in an attempt to draw the horse forward further into the "task area" without a treat, the horse immediately was shifting his weight back, thinking backward and stiffened throughout his entire body. And I really tried to "see" what others were seeing. Was it the "emotionally warm" feeling humans have because of how we frequently associate food with reward? So did it make the viewers feel good to watch the video, assuming the horse was experiencing the same "happiness" as humans do when rewarded with a sweet treat? Anyhow, I was voicing my discern as to what the viewers were missing- that I felt was visible in plain sight. The client suggested that perhaps because most people have many more experiences with dogs than horses, and it is common practice with dog training to use treats and then decrease the reliance on them, that perhaps that is why a similar training approach with horses are used. But horses aren't dogs. In how they perceive the world, in our own safety risks when interacting and sitting on 1,000lb emotional, prey animal versus the dog and his predatory behaviors. So here are a few of my thoughts based on my personal experience of handling horses that have been treat-trained to get through dramatic experiences or horses that go from overly defensive behavior to flamboyantly obnoxious invasion of personal space with a constantly nuzzling in a person's pockets, or those that have learned to obediently respond waiting for the treat in return. Unfortunately, when people are trying to get the horse through an uncomfortable scenario, most humans are task fixated, versus assessing if they have the "tools" to communicate clearly with the horse. Because they are missing crucial ways to communicate, to counter perhaps extreme fear/defensiveness/standoffishness/distrust in the horse, frequently food is used to lull the horse into doing something he does not want to do. Could this work a time or two to get the horse through something when perhaps time/location/situation is less than ideal? Yes. But what I find is that instead of folks using treats to perhaps as an initial starting point, they use it to mask underlying issues or holes in the relationship with the horse. Such as when he is defensiveness towards people, a horse that is concerned about pressure, or one that lacks mental availability to hear to the human's opinion, direction, and support. I find if the priority is on task accomplishment, then the treat appears as a means to an end and becomes a crutch every time the horse is hesitant or unwilling to comply with the human's request. Here are just a few questions I pose to folks who ask if it is okay to use treats, to assess if they are a help or hindrance in the interaction with the horse: Is the treat improving the horse's confidence in situations that are unfamiliar? Are they increasing the horse's thoughtfulness as to his surroundings or are they creating a rushing or hurried response from the horse due to his fixation on receiving a potential treat? Is the horse able to offer and do tasks with quality without searching/expectation of treats? When presented in an unfamiliar situation, and without treats, how does the horse respond mentally, emotionally and physically? Does the horse act in a way that shows the expectations of the treat, and if not given one, what does he physically do? Can a horse stand mentally, emotionally and physically quiet in close proximity to the human, whether they are on the ground or sitting on the horse's back, and not be swinging/bouncing his head and neck around searching for a treat? So here's my caution with any sort of food motivation. If a conversation with the horse decreases in quality without the motivation of a treat, then something in the foundation has been missed in both the human and horse's education and conversation. That being said, do my horses once in a while find a surprise of watermelon or apples out in the pasture? Absolutely. But there is never a consistent time/location or routine as to when they might receive an extra tasty treat. And I don't ever have them associate the treat with me feeding it to them, but rather that they find it on their own without me being around. This is also why I'm adamant about being able to throw hay and purposely practice calling a horse off of his feed or interrupting him eating at random times, making sure he does not defensive or unreasonable if asked to leave his food and confidently address me. I don't want a horse that is so food-focused that if there was an emergency or "real job" or unexpected event that came up, that I couldn't interact with him because of it interrupting his expectation of food. So as with anything wherever, however, we initially start a conversation with the horse, whether you use treats or not, the quality of the interaction should evolve to needing less "stuff" to have increasingly consistent, clear and positive interactions and experiences.

1 comment:

  1. It was a very good post indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in my lunch time. Will surely come and visit this blog more often. Thanks for sharing.
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