Monday, October 17, 2011

The Trouble With Treats

Properly done, the use of treats is a great training aid. Used incorrectly treats can train a horse to be so dangerous that it is a threat to all people within its reach.

I have no concern that treats will "teach a horse to bite...become tools to bribe him... cause a horse to be disrespectful." Careful and planned use of treats causes neither disrespect nor biting and the entire concept of "bribery" is a peculiarly warped piece of anthropomorphising. (It is about the same as fearing that giving a horse additional hay will lead to the horse committing tax fraud.)

The first real problem is nutritional and that is simple to fix. If a company is willing to charge an outrageous enough price there will always be gullible horse owners out there who think that the product must be great for horses. No where is this demonstrated better than in the marketing of horse treats. Putting a few vitamins and minerals in a handful of sugar does not change the fact that it is a handful of sugar. Sugar is never a preferred source of calories for a horse and can be lethal to one that is insulin resistant and prone to founder (Founder is now the second leading reason that adult horses are put down by vets--and is making a strong effort to replace colic as the leading reason to end a horse's suffering).

Forget about the candified, junk food treats and simply use black oil sunflower seeds in the shell that are sold as bird feed. They are relatively high in protein, filled with good fat, and also contain some helpful vitamins and minerals. The treat, when given as a reward, need not be any more than five or six seeds at a time. This eliminates the possibility of choke and allows the horse to quickly swallow the treat and return its focus on the trainer instead of spending the next five minutes standing and chewing with a complete loss of focus on the task at hand.

The bigger problem is the effect that treats have on the trainer. The trainer can come to see their role as simply doing doing something that the horse approves of. In short, a completely inverted view of the training process. If I allow the horse to view me simply as a food delivery system, I will eventually begin to see myself in exactly the same light.

I cannot train a horse under those circumstances. I can feed him, but I cannot teach him. The horse, in order to feel secure and to develop a real relationship to me must see me not as a food delivery system but as an affection and discipline delivery system. Parelli is right with his emphasis on love and leadership. Leadership (discipline) can be easily undercut by the improper use of treats. I met a horse whose human interaction for several years consisted entirely of being released from the stable and at night being fed carrots. This was a domestic horse, yet was the most dangerous horse that I ever encountered. It was the only horse that I have ever given up on trimming its hooves. The last time that I was with him I had to walk backwards out of the pasture and fight him off of me with the hoof trimming stand.

That is what a life of all carrots and no correction can produce--a criminal horse.

The last problem with treats is the simple fact that there are 24 hours in each day. Every moment that I spend with the horses must be prioritized to get the most out of that time. Time that is spent shoveling sugar into a horse's mouth is time that is not spent providing the horse with companionship and affection. The horse does not need the treat to be emotionally healthy, but it does need physical contact. It needs time spent with the trainer rubbing its neck, standing very close by, while synchronizing his breathing with the horse

The horse does not need your candy, but it does need your time. I wince when people refer to horses as their children. As a society we do a remarkably bad job of raising children. I certainly do not want that to be the model for a horse/human relationship. Unfortunately, too many people train their horses the same way they raised their children. They demonstrate how much they love both by showing how much money they spend on them. Your child needs your time much more than he needs your money.

So does your horse.

1 comment:

Jane Crosbie said...

Thank you I really enjoyed this post and your common sense approach. They way you emphasised the relationship with your horse, the affection, the time taken developing that relationship - how that's what really matters in the end. So easy to forget this when you're incredibly busy. One of the things I've always loved about horses - and dogs and cats and all animals for that matter is they don't care how much money you spend on them. Yes put the time into what really matters. Appreciated the advice and reminder thanks.