Mar 092018

By Patty Wilber

I was talking to my friend Dr. Stacie about treats as training aids. I am not a big treat giver, although I did train horses to the clippers with treats.  It got to the point that when the horses heard the clippers they would come and offer to have their ears clipped in return for a horse cookie.

I am not into indiscriminate treat giving because then I have to tell the horses “STOP TOUCHING ME!” as they nose around my pockets for treats.

Treats as a training aid, though, well, it worked for the clippers.

So, I am proposing to recruit you all to try an experiment, and then you can send me your results and I will write a blog titled “How to treat your horse”.  Stacie made up the title, and it is just too good to pass up!

Here is the admittedly weak study design:  From the ground, train your horse to touch its nose to the ground. (Apparently, this could aid in shot giving because if you can get the horse to do this, its neck will not be so stiff and the shots won’t hurt as much.) It needs to be a horse that doesn’t know how to do this.  Either do it with treats or with out (but not both).  Tell me how old your horse is, whether you feel this a a smart, easy to train horse or not,  how long it took and anything else you want to throw in.  Feel free to send pictures and commentary.

I am going to try to teach Indy and Atti.  They are both young (4 and 3), they are both girls, but after that they are about as different as could be. I think I will use treats with Indy.  I already have to remind Atti to keep her lips to herself several times a day!

My hypothesis is that things will go faster with treats.


Now on to the real topic:  Remodelling!  Over the years, we have redone fences and shelters in all our pens except one, and we finally got to it! You can see the old fence, the old shed and if you look closely, junk (fenced off from the horses, but junk none-the-less).  This was some time ago, as there is green stuff.  We are currently back in a drought and there is not much green going on.

That fence looks a little suspect.

Jim removed all the surface junk.  That seemed like a simple job until we realized that for more than 20 years, things had been silting in.  I spotted a couple of T-posts and pried them out. Each time I got one out, another appeared!  I unearthed more than 20, and finally brought the tractor over to dig deeper and make sure we found them all…and we hit a few more!  Then I got to play with the tractor to  move dirt and crusher fine to bring up the grade.

We also replaced that nasty fence with 5-foot horse fence that we hot-wired top and bottom.  As we were working on that, we discovered the charge strength was a bit weak, so we rewired a good part of the acre lot, too.  One thing always leads to another!

The site of the great T-post trove.

Then on President’s Day, while I was teaching my Microbiology classes, Jim took out the old shed including the footings and a lot of rock.  Then, he fenced off those trees in the corner to keep any horses from sneaking around behind them or eating them. Horses will find a way to get in trouble, even if you bubble wrap them.  In our case, Indy, especially.

The old shed is gone!

Case in point:  Two weeks ago, Indy about killed herself (again) by somehow getting entangled in Atti’s horse blanket.  The blanket ended up in pieces and Indy, scraped up her eye and had welts on her neck where she evidently was nearly strangled. Atti, whose  blanket was completely removed from her body, was just fine.

This blanket was in one piece on a horse in the morning!

Meanwhile behind and a little left of us (if we are standing in the pen picture, not the blanket picture above), Peter Harris built our new shelter. It is guttered so we can catch rainwater in the blue tub, and Peter and Jim both worked on moving the frost-free spigot to the outside of the pen, so that there will be no more accidental spigot bustings. LT broke the last one, not Indy, but it was probably all Bossy Penny’s fault.  Just saying.

The new shed matches the other sheds Peter built a few years ago, so we are pretty upscale now!

Happy Friday!






  • Karen Denison

    Suggestion on the training part: use a unique word or sound to signal the perfect and precise moment you get your desired action. Otherwise, you might get a lot of head bobbing as Indy searches for the “right” answer and then has to check in with you to see if it was enough! BTW, I have treat-trained my timid mule to target/touch anything “scary” such that she more willing approaches new challenges.

  • Doranna

    I used training cookies with Duncan all the time, and I use clicking/shaping with the dogs all the time.

    Another hint (THAT YOU DIDN’T ASK FOR AND PROBABLY DON’T NEED!) that seems to get missed in most early work is to avoid using a cue word until you have the action you want. Best is to just wait for a little random head-dip and click it, then build on that, but however you get there, don’t attach a word till the animal is reliably offering the action.

    (Otherwise, to the animal, the cue applies to all stages of the action and ultimately defining clarity for the final skill can be an iffy thing.)

    Even if you’re approaching it the non-shaping way and asking with halter action, etc, the cue word thing still applies. 😀

  • Patty

    Thanks! I am sick as a dog right now and have no energy for a better response!

  • Patty

    Thanks! I am sick right now and haveno energy for a better response!

  • Doranna

    Don’t be sick! (There, that should take care of it.)

  • EMoonTX

    Boy, I wish I’d thought of that for my spooky mare, years back. What a great idea. I’m going to do that with Mocha when I get her home from the trainer, if “scary” becomes a problem.

  • EMoonTX

    Very true!

  • Karen Denison

    If you want to do this for “scary” stuff, be sure to teach the first session or two with a neutral object (I think I used a folded bandana or something) so your beastie learns the rules of the game without any extra challenge first.

  • Karen Denison

    Feel better soon!

  • EMoonTX

    Since my little darling (slight sarcasm) is off at the trainer’s, I can’t do the test, Patty, but I have used treats in retraining (or adding training) to several horses with success, including Mocha. It horrifies my rancher friend from South Texas, who thinks I’m just “feeding her treats” but it works IF the horse is not already a confirmed nibbler/nipper. (I couldn’t use treats with Mac, who came to me with lack of respect for humans plus a habit of nipping. No hand feeding at all, and firm management to keep his doggone mouth away from people.) Mocha has had carrot bits (I cut big carrots into 20 to 30 pieces depending on carrot sizes) to reinforce doing things that were hard for her. As with two other horses, she was bit-shy, and like most such a painful bit in the past is problem…so once you get the non-painful smooth bit into their mouth, and aren’t yanking on it, they get over the bit-shy quickly. The Arab mare’s problem wasn’t that the bit itself had been painful in her mouth, but her owners had taught her to get her forehead rubbed for *minutes* before she had to open her mouth for the bit. (“It calms her down,” they told me.) What bothered her was not knowing how to drop the bit without it hitting her teeth, and for getting a horse to keep its head vertical so a bit *can* drop out of an open mouth without catching in the teeth..a treat is a great tool. She quickly learned “Drop it,” and we had no more problem.

    Mocha was also whip-shy, and a carrot bit for standing still and allowing the whip to stroke her neck, and later her sides, belly, and legs really did help. She made the connection of “Do what she wants, and there might be a carrot bit.” Begging got no carrots. Nudging a pocket got no carrots and a firm correction (backing up about four-five feet.) Any other carrots were served with meals, in the manger in her stall, and she had to back away from the gate, and not crowd me as I walked to her stall. I was giving her extra carrots twice a day because I felt the Vitamin A & C would be good for her, esp. arriving in midwinter in cold. Something fresh to eat. (And when the water was frozen and I was hauling water out of the house for her, to make sure she drank enough I’d mix her pellets and a cut up carrot and then add enough water to make a shloopy mess. She cleaned that up every time.

    Personally I think there are good trainers who never use (or very rarely) “treats” (or what I call positive reinforcement or rewards) and good trainers who do, and it depends on the trainer’s understanding of the difference between bribes and reinforcers whether or not a given trainer *can* use anything edible as a reinforcer. I’ve given horses carrot bits for doing something that they’d shown was hard or scary for them…and not for things they found easy (I never gave Ky carrots for jumping fences, which he loved, though he did get carrots for carting me around my first novice over fences class, in which he saved me by jumping a fence clean from an impossible spot. Nearly jumped me off, but man, what a save.)

  • Doranna

    Duncan arrived just barely post-stallion and was very pushy with his mouth. I taught him to turn his head away before he could get a (non-training) treat–it was a habit he held onto for his whole life, was not affected by training treats. 🙂

  • Patty


  • Patty

    Thanks!! Better a bit today!

  • Patty

    So far, here are the results: Indy drops her head straight to the ground because she is following the treat, so I guess I am bribing her rather than rewarding her. And being relatively bright she understood right off that I provided that there treat for some weird reason, so I probably had more, so she started trying to figure out if they were in my hand or a pocket or what. So, we had to reinforce the no begging rule.

    Atti dropped her head down to the ground in response to very light pressure the first time. The second try she thought it was a waste of time for just a pet and some nice words and was trying to put her lips on my hand under her chin instead, because basically she wants to put her lips on everything, all the time. The next day she was more consistent.

    So far the treat method (and I am just using alfalfa pellets–not even an especially special treat) is keeping that horse’s interest WAY higher, even if we may or may not be learning the trick…
    I was gobsmacked by The Virus for three whole days and only semi functional for one more. Still hacking and coughing and ingesting far more cough syrup and elderberry syrup and cough drops and Mucinex than I have in the entire last decade! But I have enough energy to work at the college and come home and work at the barn again! YAY!