I used to believe that training with treats was wrong. That it led to mugging and that food didn’t mean that much to horses anyway. But when I started using treats for training I was astounded how misguided I’d been. Treats work!! And as the objections raised to using them can also be true, maybe you’d like to join me in wondering what food means to horses after all…
A foal’s first job is to get to her feet and then get to the milk bar. Imagine those first few mouthfuls of milk. Warm, sweet, filling an urgent primal need. Associated with it is the comforting bulk of mama to lean into. Her tongue massages the baby as she feeds . For the new filly, it is pure COMFORT.
Feeding also confirms the life-saving bond between them. This first bond sets up a lifetime of close pair bonds between horses and hence, the hard-wiring and the programming for them to bond with us.
As our little filly grows, she explores the world and sometimes things gets scary. So it’s a dash back to mum for a comforting suckle. So now food plus the bond means SECURITY. If there is danger around, the herd will run, our little filly stuck close to Mum. Only when it’s safe will the foal get access to the comfort station. The life message is clear: “If it’s OK to eat, then everything’s OK”.
Food + Bond = Security
Horses spend most of their time grazing and browsing…16-18 hours per day. As the filly starts to graze, she stays nose to nose with her mother, learning what’s good to eat and what’s good to leave. It is vital for horses to closely mimic what their mothers eat as they cannot vomit back anything poisonous, so there is a learning pattern totally associated with feeding, which again we can tap into when we use treats in training.
As the filly grows up she starts to find her other bonds within the herd. These pair friendship bonds are strong and can last for life. Witness the despair horses feel upon separation. A pair bond will graze closely together , nose to nose, mimicking each others’ body language. Hannah’s filly India bonded with Khalil our Arab. He was rescued because he has a twisted front hoof. At that time he grazed with his left fore slightly extended and resting on the toe. Soon, the perfectly sound filly was grazing exactly the same way. So food is used as part of the process in creating and maintaining life-long FRIENDSHIP for our horses.
The emotions food creates in horses are COMFORT, SECURITY and FRIENDSHIP, which is how I want my horse to feel around me. The horse is relaxed and open to learning, the perfect zone for training to be fun and effective.
In fact, it’s such a no-brainer, I wonder why it took me so long to do it??