I guess the first question you need to ask yourself is “do you want to build a two-way relationship with your horse, or do you want your horse to complete the tasks you are setting for him or her, that is to be obedient?”.
I am not a fan of using treats or clickers to teach horses. I believe it creates a false relationship. Let me explain what I mean…
When we have done something really good with a horse, most of us want to reward them and our go to is usually pats or treats. This is where I believe we need to change our thinking. Why do we need to reward them? If they are happy and we are happy isn’t that simply enough? If something feels nice I will want to explore it again.
When we give treats to our horse they can have a negative effect on the significance of the good experience we just had together. How can this be?
Treats are an external motivator. They can be very beneficial in a number of situations but overall we should be trying not to use them too much as it is very easy for the horse to become motivated by the treat and not by you. Even if they have enjoyed the experience with you, if there is a treat at the end of the experience their mind will quickly go to the thought of getting a treat, rather than staying in the experience itself. We want our horses to stay focused on the joy of what just happened and the good energy passing between us. It’s even worse when they are searching for the treats immediately after doing an activity. It’s almost like the activity never even happened! In effect you have diminished the experience! Studies in humans have shown that giving rewards actually results in less internal motivation. It’s called the overjustification effect and it occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes (or treats) decreases the intrinsic motivation to perform a task.
Doing something because it feels good is a much greater motivator than a treat will ever be. What does this mean for us? It means we need to be looking for activities that truly motivate our horses. We need to be asking ourselves, “what is in it for my horse?”. This leads me back to my opening question…. “do you want to build a two-way relationship with your horse, or do you want your horse to complete the tasks you are setting for him or her, that is to simply be obedient”.
So where do I use treats? As my journey evolves I use them less and less. For me one of the biggest realisations was that if I was carrying treats on me, my love and gratitude for the horses had me giving more than I would have if they were not on me. Now, I don’t carry any treats. I have a little container outside of the arena in case I want some, but I very rarely go to them.
My words of advice is to not carry treats with you and make sure if you are using treats you really step back and ask yourself if they are truly helping build internal motivation.