When I first rescued the herd in 2007, I did not use treats. The reason is that I wanted to be sure that when the horses finally would choose my company she would come because she felt good in my company. I also wanted my horses to respond as she would with a lead horse whom she enjoyed and was drawn to. I was looking for a peaceful and connected way of being together.
The first time I started using treats, my horses became less interested in me because I shifted their focus on to the treats. Our bond and connection dropped so, I trained the horses for a while with out them. I used scratches instead and trained in short windows and spent a lot of time sharing territory and going for walks in the rain forest.
I really liked, however, to feed my horses and they loved receiving the treats I had for them. I had to find a good balance to keep the quality of the connection and continue our journey forward together. As the herd really enjoyed receiving the food from me, their interest, performance and enthusiasm increased. So through trial and error I found my way how to keep the quality of the bond and use treats wisely.
I knew I had to be careful when using treats not to lose our natural connection. Because of a horse’s system of pecking order, there was a problem introducing treats at liberty. The problem is that horses in nature do not feed other horses, but they do take food from other horses when the other horse does not want them to. When they do, they are aggressive and the result is that the horse has less respect for the horse that he took the food from.
I studied my herd and followed them around in the pastures observing how they interacted with each other. I had noticed that my lead mare would allow Spirit, a herd member of a lower rank to eat with her if she was respectful and was ready to leave at any given time when asked to leave. Spirit could eat with Darling, while Magic could not. Magic had all
sorts of opinions, did not move easily upon request and she also was a bit naughty. I observed that, for example, Elena was allowed to eat with Darling and that it was a more like a privilege and a gift that Darling was offering to her and Elena stayed very respect full while eating together with Darling.
I figured this out from the interaction that horses shared food and did not share food, as a way to create order, harmony, respect, leadership, and friendships. I observed that my lead mare would take food from Spirit and in this way keep her in a lower rank, while she also at other times shared food with Spirit as a way of creating harmony and keep Spirit “in line.”
A horse could see that by giving her food, you could be a higher ranking horse offering it, or the opposite – that he was putting you in a lowing ranking position by taking it. These observations helped me to know how to use and introduce food in the training of my horses.
I love using treats, but do not always use them. It is important for me to be able to ask different exercises with out any treats at all.