March 12, 2011


There has been an interesting discussion going on, starting with Laura's post Trust over at Equestrian Ink, and followed by Kates post Sometimes you feel like a nut at A year with horses.
It's about how we interact with our horses.

In a way the discussion itself makes me smile, because communication is not easy - whether it is between humans or horses. There are many similarities, are there not? It is much about interpretation, and trying to understand.

It also made me think about how much the horseworld has changed.
In the old days, as nowadays in some parts of the world, your income might have been depending on your horse.
Or even your life.

Since the de-horsing of the farms in the 50'ies, we now mainly use horses for pleasure.
That arises some other thoughts about the horses we have around us.
What is fair?
What can I ask from my horse?

All herd-bound animals - be it humans, antelopes or horses, must have a set of rules to interact safely with each other.
I guess we all can agree that we need a set of basic rules for our horses, to be able to handle them safely.
But after that, the use and our opinions of how to handle the horse might differ.

Us horse people can be very conservative.
Most of us live by old traditions, and when we do things, we do them in a specific way because that is what we learnt once upon a time.
As an example, look at how we build and work our barns.
Compare it to how cows are kept. During the last 20 years a large degree of automation has taken place. Now cows even have robots to milk them. Fully automised feeding, based on chip marking. Each cow gets the amount it should.
One can ask if this is all good, but at least the farmer is not as bound to be home for milking or feeding as in the old days.
But when it comes to horses?
We still muck out in wheel-barrows.

Now I am going to reveal something very controversial.
I use treats when training.
Never mind that dog trainers, dolphin trainers and I guess every animal trainer in the world now uses it, in the horse world it is still a bad word.
And I wonder why?

Please allow me to ponder a bit more on this.
We are much coloured from old traditions.
These traditions were mainly made by  men, where (sorry guys) the macho-factor sometimes comes into handling of horses.
Be firm. And if the horse doesn't want to, make him. By force, if necessary.
So, it is more accepted to hit the horse than to give him a treat.
Isn't that strange?

Now, on the other hand, I believe most horses (like children) test you out from time to time. Some in a subtle way, some more flagrant.
The more experienced you are with horses, the more you are able to read them.
And you can by reading the horse often avoid that tricky situations arise. Both you and the horse can relax more.
You can allow to give and take a bit more, and listen to each other. But keep the borders firm.

I do not have a bad conscience to make my horses work.
It's their job.
The horses that don't have a job don't live here anymore, most of them.
Where are the farm horses?
Where are the army horses?
I also have to work, to keep my horses and to get food on the table.
So my horses have to work too.

I keep horses for pleasure. I am not in a hurry, because I don't base my income on them.
I work with the horses I have chosen myself, and I chose them much on a sound mind and body.
So I guess my horselife is pretty much uncomplicated.
But I also see that it limits my experience, even if I have been around horses for a long time.

On the other hand, I know that there are other people out there that have their income based on horses.
The trainers often get the horses other people can't train.
I can see that their situation, and their experiences, might differ from mine.
If your safety is on the line, how do you react?
Does an unsafe horse have much of a future?

What is abuse?
I suppose we all can agree on beating up the horse is abuse.
But what about the more subtle things?
Keeping a horse stabled 24/7?
Putting on three rugs?
Only doing indoor arena work?
Is that OK?

Many people have sighed for the 'good old days' and regretted the 'passing of the horse,' but today, when only those who like horses own them, it is a far better time for horses.  
~C.W. Anderson


Grey Horse Matters said...

Great post, I agree with everything you've said here.

I train my horses with treats, I'm pretty sure they're so spoiled they would only work for treats anyway. And I see nothing wrong with rewarding them for a job learned or a job well done.

My horses are also pleasure horses and so there is no hurry to get them trained quickly. When we had a business my daughter re-trained problem horses but she did it slowly one little step at a time. It amazed me that some owners liked her method and some were annoyed and pulled their horses out. One woman wanted her horse retrained in a month. This was impossible because the horse came in with the biggest case of Lyme's and had to be treated first. There was also no way to retrain him quickly after all the bad abusive training he had in the past.

I see how some trainers are under pressure to get it done quickly but I don't agree with putting a band-aid on a problem but fixing it from the inside out. And most times the band-aid fix employs methods I don't agree with.

One more thing I agree with. I hate to say this but our herd costs us a lot of hard earned money. Then again you can't put a price on pleasure but to say they are pampered, spoiled and loved would be an understatement . My point being I think that they could work and hour or two a few days a week. It's good for them and it's good for us.

This is getting too long so I'll just say I love your pictures and I agree with your post.

Anonymous said...

Love the pictures, too. I think it's all a matter of degree, and of intent. I also use treats for clicker training, and also feed treats as a reward after riding. I don't think there's any problem with that provided the horse is trained to take a step back, wait and then not grab the treat when it is offered.

And you're so right about how important it is to not rush things - to take time.

Nice post.

Steph said...

I also train with treats. I find my horse to be far more willing than when I use force.He used to clamp his teeth down and not open his mouth for the bit when bridling. I could've jabbed him in the bars with my thumbnail to get him to open up, but I found a peppermint was much more pleasant for all involved.

Now he knows if he accepts the bit with no fuss and stands nicely for bridling, he may get a mint. Guess who is super easy to bridle?

I also don't feel bad if my horse has a job. He has to do my bidding for an hour or two a day, and gets to be a horse the other 22-23. I think that's a very fair arrangement!

Shinyfluff said...

Interesting post. I also train with treats and I don't see why others think it is a problem. it makes a job pleasant instead of horrible : )

lytha said...

sometimes using treats is the best solution to a problem. my horse didn't like to stand still while mounting so offering a treat after i got on, the horse didn't go anywhere, he turned his neck and waited for the treat.

my horse never opens his mouth for a bit unless there is a treat in my hand on the other side of the bit. it's a nicer method than sticking my finger in his mouth.

Laura Crum said...

I really liked your post Horse of Course. I don't use treats to train, though we sometimes give a treat (or some grazing time) after we're done riding. But I think if using treats works for you its not a big deal. I don't choose to "spoil" my horses, though I don't know what that word means to others. I choose to handle them such that they are respectful and well behaved both on the ground and under saddle and a pleasure to handle. When they push at that boundary ( because they are gentle and treat them kindly, this does happen), I let them know that's not acceptable. They seem quite happy with our life and meet me at the gate to have their halters put on. All of our horses open their mouths willingly for the bit, though no one has ever offered them a treat for this. That said, I know a horse that WAS difficult to bridle, and carrots were the ticket. Worked much better than force. So I am always open minded to see what will work on a given horse. They are all different.

HorseOfCourse said...

GHM - I agree. Relearning takes much more time and effort, than learning right from the first time. Horses have a very good memory.
The quickest way is to take your time. Otherwise you risk to ask too much, and something unplanned will happen, which might give the horse bad memories, or rip up old, bad ones. Which again will take longer time to solve.

Kate - the older I get, the more shades of grey I get instead of black and white. I see that my experiences by no means gives an answer to all situations. I know where I stand, what feels right and wrong for me - but that is my small part of reality, and my horses. And the more you learn, the more you see how little you know. Thanks for making me reflect on my own situation. And of course the horse has to behave. Also with treats.

Steph - we started with using treats in a system when our daughter got her first pony when she was seven.
He was Pony with a capital P, very smart and used his intelligence to his own advantage. So in the beginning, he just lifted his head when our daughter was to put on the bridle, and she had no chance to get it on herself.
The idea was that she should do as much as she could by herself, so we had to find a solution.
After some thinking we found out that she should have a snack ready whenever she was to put the bridle on. Took two tries, and then he came and lined up, all ready to open his mouth! And it was never a problem anymore.

Shinyfluff - welcome! Yes, I believe it shortens the time to learn.

Lytha - I absolutely want my horse to stand still when mounting. I used the same method for Fame when she was a youngster, and now she lines up wherever we are. Very handy when out bareback, and you need to dismount!

Yes Laura, they are all different. And thanks for starting this discussion, it has been very interesting!
I believe what we really need to "spoil" our horses with is what matters to them, and that is not treats.
Fresh water, good quality food, out every day with other horses and variation in the work.
Handling with respect and consistency.
Not asking too much.
Kindness and a scratch.
To me, the treat is not as much to spoil, but to get a message through in an easier way, and make the work a bit more fun.
And I do not accept pushy horses ;-)

Merri said...

it is a very good post, some very thoughtful comments. Any use of the horse might be considered abuse from someone who used their horse in a completely different way. Now that my retired racehorse has 220 acres to roam, and not a stall within 5 miles, I shudder to think of how he lived at the racetrack, in his stall 23 hours a day. Horses are very adaptable to their situations whether it's their job or training or handling or living situation. I wonder if we are as adaptable as human beings?
- The Equestrian Vagabond

HorseOfCourse said...

Merri - I am sitting at the airport writing this, and I just reflected on what a bad idea it was for me to go straight out of the car and into the airport. Having an afternoon without any fresh air makes me hang like a flower without any water.

To me, keeping a horse stabled 23 hrs/day is worse than to give him a smack if he walks upon me.

Shanster said...

I hadn't realized treats were such a controversial subject until I saw many comments under a blog post about it. I figure there are many ways to reach an end result and whatever works.. who am I to tell someone how to do it?

There are lots of grey areas and misunderstandings due to phrases people us and the meaning of certain words to different people.

Our pleasure horses today have it pretty good with a limited hours of riding each week vs. the all day jobs, all week long of farming or milk carts or as the only mode of transportation etc. And until they begin paying their feed/vet/farrier bills, I don't have any guilt about saddling them up when I want to go for a ride. :)

I love the quote at the end. How very true.

Kerrin Koetsier said...

Great post, and thought provoking! Both the blogs you've pointed to are an excellent read, too!

Kerrin Koetsier
Parelli Central

Anne i Hannover said...

There's a German proverb that goes something like "not nagging is enough praise" which I think often fits the traditional way of riding. It's all based on negative reenforcement, taking away pressure/pain to signal a correct response.

I don't use treats myself, but I do think that positive reenforcement is a good thing, doesn't matter if it's treats, a pat on the neck or a praising voice, whatever works!

As for how we keep horses, hm. I used to think that there was no excuse to keep horses inside a stall more than absolutely necessary. After having worked in stables where horses are not kept for recreation, but are kept by professionals depending on their soundness to earn an income, I've modified my opinions a bit. When it comes to professionaly kept horses, sometimes they are seen more as valuable assets than animals. It's unfortunate, but to a certain extent I understand it.
It's definately an interesting topic to discuss!

mugwump said...

It's interesting how many times not using treats to train was equated with force.
Since when did it become an issue of use treats or force?
What if you choose neither?

mugwump said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HorseOfCourse said...

Shanster - you wrote: "There are lots of grey areas and misunderstandings due to phrases people use and the meaning of certain words to different people."
That's just it.
We kind of devide people into certain categories, and put a label on them.
And read what they write with our "glasses" on, seeing only what confirms our own beliefs, and kind of overlook the rest.
I believe that is very dangerous to do. And that was one of the things I reflected upon in the discussions going on earlier.
Discussing things is one way to open up, and getting new impulses.

Maybe using treats is not controversial everywhere. I just find that within my part of the world, and my generation, giving treats is a bit of a "thing-not-done" if you are an Experienced Horse Person.
And as I cannot resist going against such "truths", where no-one so far has been able to give me a valid reason why I should not, I continue to provoce a a bit ;-)

Kerrin - thank you!

Anne - Yes, I might understand from an economical point of view why they won't let Totillas out to romp with the rest of the guys - but it still makes me sad.

Mugs - I believe your comment ties up with Shanster's?
Of course there is a middle way here, and I also believe that's where most people work.
Bringing treats into the discussion was from my side more of an attempt to stir around in the pot a bit as it usually results in some interesting reactions. Here everyone was too polite, so my plans were thwarted...
I use treats when I train. It works for me. That's all. It is not a big thing, and I have no problem to accept other views on this - but I do like to discuss it!
I believe the debate gets emotional because our horses means so much to us. When that is said, I also believe it is important not to polarise, or add more attributes to what peoples say or do than is the case. And accept that other people's experiences and views might differ from my own, but that doesn't need to make them a bad horse person.
One of your strengths - which your blog reflects - is an open mind and a will to understand people from other horse sports than your own.

Anonymous said...

Hey my name is rachel(: I have this new horse( 1 yr old) that i'm training. I'm not sure how to train her to lung. i asked my trainer, and she is giving my tips(; i just not sure what to do

HorseOfCourse said...

Hi Rachel!
I am not a trainer, just a horse owner - so I cannot really give you any advice but to tell you what I would have done if it was my horse.

You know, I would not longe such a young horse at all, but wait until my horse got older.
Longing puts a lot of stress on joints and tendons, and as your horse is still growing, he is not ready to take that kind of work yet.
I would instead spend some time to train my horse to handle things like leading, grooming and handling.
You will become good friends, and when your horse gets older it will be easier to start the real training.

SallymetHarryHorse said...

interesting all things i suppose its how you balance them.

horseracing systems said...

I have lived all my life with horses and I could not say it better than you, I love my horses and I try to train them as much as I can, but my time is so limited