- 1. Don’t worry about it!
With all of the conflicting opinions out there, it is easy to feel tense about your needing to use treats “right.” The harder you try to be perfect, however, often the more frustrated you will get. Every session using food you will learn more. Do what seems right for your own training style and your own horse’s personality. As Dominic Barbier says, think all you want after the session, but try to just “feel” and go with the flow during. With a horse who is somewhat shut down, you may find yourself feeding a lot of treats for seemingly ridiculously small things – or even nothing at all! With a horse who is very confident, you may use a bridge signal more consistently to help channel his energy. Also, recognize that your use of treats may change from session to session. This is not confusing to your horse, who is used to being flexible about rules (horses are rarely consistent in how they treat each other around food). As Carolyn Resnick suggests, having flexible, changeable usage of treats (not in areas of safety, but in whether/how much they are used) actually causes the horse to focus more to determine what you are doing that day.
- 2. Work with food both on and off you.
Many people know about having treats on you, but far fewer train their horses using treats that are not on you (in a bucket in the arena somewhere, for example). This can be humbling at first, for the horse will naturally go to the bucket to eat the treats. (This is perfectly normal and not indicative of a bad relationship between you two. Horses naturally go to where the food is, and if he goes to the food and eats it, he gets rewarded. In “human land,” when you get rewarded, you did something right; therefore, going to the bucket to eat is right.) This is where you have to teach your horse self control and that he has to do things with you before you go to the treats together. It is highly educating for a horse to able to maintain composure and focus around food no matter where it is or isn’t.
- 3. Become proficient using a bridge signal.
There is an excellent training method called SATS (www.synalia.com) which forever changed how I work with horses. It is clearer to the horse when you use treats if you can give him a precise time when the treat was awarded. SATS has you use an intermediate bridge (I use the words “goooood, goooood”) to tell the horse he’s “getting warmer.” Then, you use a terminal bridge (I use the word “yes!”) to mark the exact right behavior, which is attached to the treat. This gives the horse some guidelines on when he can expect treats. Don’t get too hung up on this, though. There are times when I give treats without using a bridge signal, and the horses have no trouble adjusting.
- 4. Teach your horse a position in which to take the treat.
If you are worried about mugging, teach the horse to go into a certain position to take his treat. For my horses, I usually use the ramener (arched neck) position (although for a tense horse I have used a head-down position). Because my focus is on liberty/bridleless dressage, I want my horses to love that position, because even though an arched neck is certainly not collection, it is indeed one aspect to it that has been crucial in my horses’ education. When I reach to give a treat, the end result is that the horses usually go into ramener on their own to wait for the treat, instead of reaching for my hand and taking it from me.
- 5. Remember that food is a gift.
Food and treats are gifts to your horse! If it ever seems like he is treating them as booty to be stolen and not gifts to be accepted, stop for now and see how you can re-shape that belief/behavior of his. Even if he “earned” a treat, if he begins to take it in a rude manner, don’t give it to him. He has a responsibility to be gracious toward you, and he will not be confused if he did not get the treat – he knew he almost got it, but for some reason his behavior repelled the gift. He will figure it out if you are consistent.
These are only a few beginning guidelines, and there many principles and techniques in here that I have now referenced but have not explained, such as how to work around food without your horse getting offended. However, play with this information and see how you can use (or not use) treats to further the relationship with your horse.