Let’s Discuss: Tricks or treats?

I have no problem admitting that I spoil my horses. Besides raining praise down on them when they are doing the right thing, I also like to give them treats to reward good behavior. I also do think that treats can strengthen your relationship with a horse, helping them to view you as a source of pleasure rather than strictly work.


I have a personal no-peppermint, no-sweeties rule when it comes to treats. My own experience has been that sugary rewards turn polite horses into treat hounds, rudely searching pockets and fingers and sometimes even pushing a human over looking for a minty morsel (which some days, I get it- cravings are real, yo).

Treats please, human.

Treats please, human.

Instead I try to buy treats with more natural flavors, like carrot or apple or oats. The reward is still there, but the rooting and shoving tendencies are less so. A friend gave me these low-sugar, apple based treats as a yay-new-pony gift and both Smitty and I liked them so much (him for the taste, me for the texture) I ordered more all the way from Florida.

Treat description is here.

Treat description is here.

Even with the low sugar rule, I have to be careful about how I reward the babysaurus. With his incredibly mouthy tendencies, I can’t just stuff cookies in his mouth anytime. Typically, he gets a treat for standing still while I mount, and occasionally when I turn him out [if he’s behaved that day]. It’s meant I’ve had to learn some self restraint from the days of hello-cookies, washbay-cookies, goodbye-cookies, and well, you get the jist. But slowly, Smitty is starting to understand when he gets a treat and more glacially, when things do and do not go in his mouth.

One day I hope that he will grow out of this orally-obsessed phase and I can start to treat him and reward with food more often, but for now I have to be the restrained Scrooge of treats, stowing them away out of sight until he’s adult enough to earn them.

Do you have any treat preferences? Any rules about when ponykins gets a treat, or is your barn a reward free for all? 

22 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: Tricks or treats?

  1. I am also a sucker. Like if they look at me, I want to give them a treat. I also like to have several different kinds. It is a bit of a free for all, but they only get treats if they are not mouthy. They can touch me, but not open their mouths…They get bopped if they do. I allow licking (technically, that falls in open mouth, but I let it slide), smelling, SLIGHT, sweet nudging. I do have one that I can not give too many or he gets way to forward thinking about treats. I do not think he will get over that.

  2. Drifter hardly ever got treats, partly because of the mouthy-baby-phase and partly because his owners generally think treats are a no-no. But lately I’ve been giving him apples now and then (shhh don’t tell!). Usually the apple goes on the ground so he doesn’t associate my hands by his face with food, but every once in awhile I cave and give one to him by hand.

  3. Those Seminole Wellness treats are awesome. Friend gave me a bag she won at the Mustang Makeover and Copper/Paige loved them. I also bought a bag of the Standlee Apple Berry Cookie Cubes at TSC that are similar. I give my guys any and all things, BUT they are adults with manners. If I had a mouthy baby I’d be hiding the cookies…I do mostly hide them from the mini donks for that reason. Mine only get them after a ride (hence why Copper and Paige are the ones I referenced liking them…)

  4. I’m the meanest mom in the world, and Frankie does not get hand fed treats. Ever. It breaks my heart. But he loses his ever-loving mind as soon as he suspects a treat might be within a 2 mile radius, and homeboy is too big to forget his ground manners like that. Sometimes the Treat Fairy will leave something in his bucket for him to find, but his rewards for good behavior are lots of scratches in his itchy spots.

  5. Although, I used treats more liberally when I was trying to get Eli to chill out in the cross-ties, we are past that part now. Eli gets apples as part of a routine, not a reward. Rewards are scratches & pats. He’s too mouthy otherwise.

  6. I am also a sucker and my horses are spoiled ruthlessly. I also clicker train, so, treats. HOWEVER, I refuse to have pushy horses so they have to wait and are not allowed to root around and be jerks. Treats are the only way I was able to teach B to lead (yes, really), be caught and also release without spinning, as well as load in a trailer. Routine treat handouts and he now is great on the ground and for loading. I also do carrot stretches after every ride and if I forget, B quietly stands and looks at me like excuse me mahm, you’re forgetting something. Both boys adore peppermints so they get exactly one after every ride and then also fruits and veggies plus the little nugget treats for everything else.

  7. I give treats whenever! There are really no rules about feeding treats at my barn, other than Dino is only allowed to have peanuts or special fat-pony cookies, because Cushing’s. Also if teeth come out, then NO SNAX. They get a nose-punch instead. But other than that… I give treats whenever I feel like it.

  8. Houston was very solidly in the minimal stuff by hand camp regardless of the treat. I haven’t found that the content changes he treat begging behavior that much. He only got them in the bucket. Annie is pretty polite so she gets stuff by hand – though typically sparingly. Baby horse gets stuff by hand when I catch her so I can hopefully encourage her to meet me at the gate… we will see how successful that is. 🙂

  9. Roger has great ground manners and I don’t want to ruin them, so I only ever do treats post-ride and/or post-bath. He never gets mouthy, so I hand-feed cookies and peppermints, and also try to do carrot stretches after every ride as well. I don’t want to teach Roger to expect cookies every 5 minutes, so I try to keep them to a minimum, usually right before I put him back in his stall or back outside.

  10. Another sucker over here, and I have to go on occasional treat-purges to remind Murray how to behave.


    While the quality and preference of the treat unarguably influences an individual’s willingness to do work for said treat (we do preference tests before training cognitive tasks for a reason!), I think that the training of the individual regarding appropriate behavior around treats can override rudeness if the individual is trained well. Take, for example, my friend’s Lusitano stallion. This horse is an absolute gentleman for grooming, tacking up, leading, and riding, whether I’m stuffing his face with peppermints or not. He doesn’t usually get treats from his owner but he gets them from me when I’m grooming for her, and his behavior and politeness has not changed at ALL — either towards owner or me. He is well trained.

    Murray, on the other hand, knows that bumping, nudging, looking at me, poking me, and occasionally even offering up undesirable behaviors will lead to treat dispensing. This is because I suck as a trainer. I’m inconsistent about the rules, and I occasionally reward him for such ridiculousness — and for a horse who is interested in treats (Murray), that intermittent reinforcement is an incredibly strong trainer (think gambling). If I were 100% consistent on behaviors that do and don’t get treats with Murray, and then instituted an intermittent reward schedule for the behaviors that I’m actually interested in, he would probably perform those behaviors with 100% accuracy because he WANTS DEM CARROTS YO.

    (Also, Murray is worse for carrots than peppermints. His hierarchy of reinforcers is weird.)

    • I agree with this so much! I also want to add that the human’s attitude and emotion play such a HUGE role in a horse’s response to treats. If a human guards the treats, gets anxious or tense with treats (as in: you shouldn’t shove me for one you know better!!), etc., the horse will mirror that tense around treats. And what do they do when they get nervous around treats? They push and shove and get mouthy! But if the human is come and treats the treats as NBD, the horse will definitely mirror that. I see so many people that say their house gets mouthy and pushy around treats and I see how tense and axioms they get when the treats come out, it’s no surprise that the horse gets worked up, too!! Horse’s don’t have problems with treats, humans do ;).

  11. I’ve never noticed much of a difference between treat types, tho I usually stick to cheap and easy, like carrots apples breath mints or sugar cubes. Isabel behaved the same no matter what, and she was fun to spoil.

    Charlie, on the other hand, also behaves the same no matter what – but he definitely falls into the “hound” category and really can’t have treats until everything is all said and done and you’re putting him away for the day. Bc damn lol.

  12. I’m pretty Scroogey with treats- for whatever reason have always been. Though I do go through very short phases where I’ll stuff them full of treats!! (Christmas is always a treat stuffing day) I do have to be careful about how many treats I give Chimi bc food triggers his cribbing. I’m suppose to be doing stretches with him every day but sometimes I forget or don’t have as much time… whoops! But when I do feed treats I tend to use the Standlee Apple Berry ones bc of the low sugar content and they smell amazing too! You can get them at Tractor Supply and Smartpak so they’re pretty easy to find and are very comparable to the Seminol treats.

    For special days the ponies will get Mrs Pastures or Nicker Doodles and holy cow they go batshit crazy over those!!! It’s pony crack to them 🙂 I would love to feed more carrots but don’t have a good storage place to keep them at the barn. Whenever I get a chance to build a barn with proper electricity I am definitely putting in a fridge so I can buy the 50lb bag of carrots and feed them carrots all the time! It would be carrots for breakfast and carrots for dinner if I had non sketchy electricity 🙂

  13. I definitely see a difference in my guy over sugary vs not. He is generally well-behaved, but definitely starts offering up every trick he knows for certain cookies and treats over others. I like to reward with lots treats for everything, but obviously each horse is different. I especially like to use them to reinforce coming to the gate and standing politely after the halter comes off for turnout. I have found with the ones who get a little too mouthy that if I make it a point to only give a treat for a desired behavior (even just a trick) they tend to learn that treats don’t come out willy nilly, and they have to actually DO something for the treat.

  14. Cosmo has me well trained: treat before I pick his feet, after I pick his feet, mid brushing, before booting up, and then a handful (or 2 or 3) as soon as I pull the bridle off. He can get a little demanding with the foot tapping if I don’t treat with the correct frequency. I’m ok with it for him, he gets treats just for being him.

  15. Yeah, I’m bad. I’ll feed my horse just about any kind of treat… although usually they don’t get them until they’re done and in their stall… but sometimes in the crossties.

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