Of the ten ponies currently in my herd, only three get hand-fed treats. These ponies are polite about it; the others are too mouthy, a behavior I don’t want to encourage. The mouthiest of my ponies is my Norwegian Fjord Horse gelding Torrin. This winter I did invent a treat game for him. Other people with mouthy horses have asked me about it.
Both Torrin’s paddock-mates got treats this winter, and they were also commanding lots of my attention (one for health reasons, the other for training.) Torrin seemed to feel left out, mostly in the attention department. To do something with him that didn’t take much time or effort, I started playing hide and seek with a treat. I would place a treat on the ground then lead him to the general area at liberty then point to the treat, teaching him to follow my gaze and intent. It was a fun short game we could play together when I didn’t have time for much else. And since I wasn’t feeding the treat out of my hand, it didn’t encourage mouthiness around me.
Several years ago, a buyer of one of my ponies told me she had taught her new pony to take an apple out of her coat pocket. I was dismayed. While it’s a cute trick, if not done properly, it could lead to really bad behavior. My friend Doc Hammill accurately summarizes the challenges of such activities: “All great trainers use food rewards properly in their training processes. But it’s so easy to use food rewards in ways that encourages the wrong behavior. Unless people are very conscious and diligent and educated about the use of food as a reward, they can get into terrible trouble and produce dangerous horses or horse behavior that is completely unacceptable. It’s far better to never use food as a reward than to use it improperly.” (1)
Being conscious and diligent about using food rewards is not something that comes naturally to most of us. I made the mistake once of selling a pony with whom I used hand-fed treats as rewards. I was able to manage the behavior of the pony, but the new owner wasn’t. I should have stopped that form of reward long before I sold that pony, but at the time I didn’t realize how differently people manage their horses when it comes to food.
I recently realized a reason why I invented the treat game with Torrin. It’s because I’ve never figured out where he likes to be scratched. As Doc Hammill says, “If you don’t know your horse’s sweet spots, your horse’s favorite spots to be groomed and itched, then you’re missing a big rewarding opportunity.” (2) In fact, as I look at the ponies that I have fed treats to over the years, for most of them I hadn’t figured out their favorite places to be scratched. I have found it’s always better to reward with a scratch in a favorite place than any other way. When I’m with my ponies, I always have my fingers, so I always have a way to reward good behavior.
Torrin’s behavior changed after I started this treat game, and it wasn’t entirely positive, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this unless you’re prepared to manage and correct any adverse consequences. Torrin definitely perks up and comes to me when he thinks we’re going to play the find-the-treat game. But he’s pretty good about coming to me anyway, and he’s always good about following me at liberty when I ask. Now that we’re working together again regularly, I don’t use this game at all. So while this treat game was a good way to engage with him when I didn’t have time for anything else, I won’t use it again so that I don’t encourage inappropriate behavior. And I’ve recently found a spot he does like to be scratched, so I’ll use that as a reward when I need to. It’s a much better tool than treats for a mouthy boy.
1) Hammill, Doc. Gentle Training 2: Daily Opportunities, DVD, www.dochammill.com, 2011.
2) Hammill DVD.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012