Why I don’t use food treats to connect with horses

It’s wonderful how horses connect with humans who are connected with themselves. Horses do that from nature, it’s who they are. They feel if the human is aware and present and then they will naturally make contact and connect with them. There is no need to “train” that, to “reward” that.

I like to compare it with a child that connects with it’s mother.  It’s natural for the child to do that if it feels safe with it’s mother, if the mother is loving and warm .  But what if the mother would start to reward the child for that?  That the child, every time it connects with his mother, by wanting to be in her presence, by taking her hand, or giving her a hug or a kiss, receives a candy?  And the mother says: Yes! This is the right thing to do! Here, because you do that, you receive a candy!

After a few times the child would start to loose the real feeling of wanting to connect with it’s mother, it would “connect” for the candy, it would think: I want a candy, so I will go to my mother and give her a hug.  The hug itself would loose it’s meaning. While hugging, the child would already think about “the reward”.  The mother too, she wil start to carry candy’s with her all the time, because if the child comes to her, she has the feeling she has to reward that.  Also the mother can not connect anymore, because she is also already thinking about how and when to reward the child.  Both are not present anymore, connection has lost it’s purity…

Of course, you understand immediately that this it not done,and that’s also the reason not one mother on the planet does that, it’s just not “right”. It would break the natural connection between mother and child.

But what about horses? Don’t we see this happen a lot? Well, let’s be honest here. In my search for a deeper connection with horses I have to admit I also tried it…

And it felt amazing!

Because after only a few times of rewarding the horse with a piece of carrot to connect with me,  they started to come over to me from the moment they saw me appearing.  Wow, some of them even galopped towards me! This was great! And that was not all, some of them sticked to me like glue, everywhere I went, they came along.

Unfortunately, that amazing feeling didn’t last for long…

The moments horses came to me to “connect”, started to feel different…  It felt awkward and unnatural. At first I didn’t know exactly what it was, but then it became more and more clear to me…  It was not about me, or us, or connecting with each other anymore, even though that’s how it all started.

Now it was about “the reward”.

Some horses were showing this to me very clearly, while other horses were very subtle in their expectations…  You could hardly see it, but for example they would only slightly tilt their head towards my hand or pocket for a split second, for someone who wasn’t paying close attention, it would not even be noticable, but that slight, short, almost invisible movement carried a sad message…

Connection was not without expectations anymore.

Not for the horse, but also not for me.

Therefore, it was no true connection…

No need to say I stopped “rewarding” my horses when they came to me. The first days they would still come galopping towards me, after a few days they walked up to me and when they found out there was nothing to eat, they turned away and walked off.   After another few days they just continued grazing…

But I didn’t mind, from that moment on I knew that I just had to spend time with them in their field,  just being myself and being present. That alone already is true connection.

And if a horse comes to you or it doesn’t come to you, if it stands next to you or grazes at a distance, it doesn’t matter at all.   Sometimes they want to be very close, sometimes they want more distance.  I strongly feel, thanks thanks to my experiment with food treats, that So how do you get a true connection with your horse?

I do want to add here, that I  am not “against” food treats, not at all!  I do give horses treats sometimes, but only for “training” or when the natural connection is already there.  “Training” to me is teaching the horse something that is unnatural or difficult for the horse to understand. Then food rewards can be very helpful and motivating for a lot of horses. So I use food rewards when I feel it helps the horse to be more engaged during training and to feel more motivated.

Also during Liberty Training, for example when playing the boomerang or the “carrot game”. Then a treat is very motivating and fun for the horse!  But, as I said: connecting with others -horses or humans – is very natural for a horse, it’s a social animal just like us, so it’s not necessary to “reward” that or “train” that.


Header image by Princess Botulism 2008,
http://creative commons.org