Equestrian Life: Clicker Training and Treats for Horses

The best part about living on the farm is that every day is an opportunity for me to play with my horse. It’s so helpful for my writing, and something I didn’t get when I was keeping him a distance away from my apartment. I get to handle Ben every single day, and most days I ride him, too.

Now, Ben is very food-motivated, and I think it’s important to use what works for a horse to train him. But of course, training horses with treats can make them very mouthy and demanding. That’s why some people simply never give their horses treats at all.

I believe treats can be used positively and I make sure Ben gets them regularly. So that I don’t overfeed him or overload him with sugar, I use Buckeye Carrot Crunchers. I was very excited when I found these treats, because I’d been struggling to find treats both small enough to use regularly yet also not full of sweetener — and they’re the perfect size for my needs, but more on that below.

The thing is, the treats part of clicker training was really important. I knew I’d be giving up my most valuable motivator for Ben if I had to stop giving him treats. Food is his language. Some horses will work for pats, but he’s not one of them!

But of course, we had a problem. This horse was mugging me for treats constantly. Not just me–everyone who crossed his path. He was in pockets, tugging on shirts, running his lips along arms–basically a menace.

Then, I went to a clinic by Shawna Karrasch, who came up with clicker training for horses back in the 1990s. I was skeptical of clicker training for the longest time, but I saw her do a demo at Horse World Expo in PA and liked her explanation of how it was derived from training marine mammals. That miraculous connection we see between trainers and animals like dolphins or seals is created with clicker training.

The thing I liked best about clicker training was one of the very first lessons Shawna teaches: the horse should turn his head AWAY from the trainer before getting a treat. What I found out was it was fairly quick and easy to click and give the horse a treat as soon as he made the try to turn his head away, and then, it was just a matter of time before the horse looked away completely in order to say he wanted a treat.

It’s also super cute when they do it.

I found everything I needed to clicker train was inexpensive: a container to hold treats (I use a Herschel hip-bag I found on clearance), a clicker (I grabbed a $7 dollar one from the dog aisle at Tractor Supply) and treats.

Now for treats, I wanted something decently sized because I use them while riding, and I wear gloves. So I need to be able to grasp it from the bag and hand it to Ben while wearing gloves. Forage pellets were a little too small for the job. I tried a couple different kinds of treats, but it was hard to find something the right size that was also low in sugar.

When I discovered these Buckeye Carrot Crunchers treatas, I was excited because they’re perfect: no sugar, small and round (easy to grasp in gloves), and really just made from carrots and wheat. There’s nothing in here to bother your average horse’s metabolism–or make him or her hot with extra sugar! And they’re also really reasonably priced.

I started with groundwork, teaching Ben to turn his head away from me by clicking and offering a treat every time he looked away from me (or the hip-bag with the treats in it). Once he started turning his head away, I did some more basic groundwork — clicking and treating for halting, or lifting his forelegs when I said leg. Super easy things.

What I find is that everything sticks really well, and that includes WHEN treats are on offer. Basically, Ben knows when I’m wearing the hip-bag and that we’re going to work (and he’s gonna get some treats). He knows that he’s not allowed to root in my hip-bag for treats, and if he does stick his nose on it and I push his nose away, he looks away quickly because he has remembered that he’s supposed to turn his head away before I give him a treat.

After I’ve untacked him from a ride and I’m going to give him a shower, the hip-bag comes off and he knows there won’t be any more treats until I’m done with him, which also stops the nosy, invasive behavior. He just stands still for his bath.

It has completely cured his mugging problem. Which is so great, because I love giving this horse treats. And yes, I do give him a cookie now and then without the hip-bag or the clicker, but it’s not enough to make him a mugger again. Since we reinforce with the hip-bag, the Carrot Crunchers, and the clicker 3-5 times per week, he retains the knowledge that he’s probably not getting anything unless all those items are in place.

Definitely give this a try if your horse is a mugger or nippy about treats, because it makes giving your horse treats fun again, and also teaches them boundaries. They like learning, so the whole process is great for them. Even if you don’t use clicker training for anything in the saddle, for groundwork games and teaching them not to mug for treats, it’s unbeatable!

Equestrian Life is part of writing Equestrian Fiction.

Keeping horses, especially keeping them at home with me, is such an important part of my writing. If you’re working to become an established author of equestrian-related fiction, be sure horses are as much a part of your life as they can be. Even if you can’t keep one at home to get hands-on training principles correct in your fiction, you might be able to go to horse shows or volunteer at equestrian events. Stay horsey. It really matters to your work!

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