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!

Ben grazing

Riding Life: Ben and the Tortoise

I haven’t written about my riding in a hot minute, and since that’s where my blogging (and fiction) days began, I thought: today’s ride definitely deserves a blog post. You see, everything looked so promising. Everything started out so well.

And then, Florida happened.


At my old farm out in swamp country, I had an issue with alligators. Well, one alligator. He (gender assumed but not determined for convenience’s sake) was about four and half feet long, enjoyed long swims in the pond at the back of my property, and had reflective eyes which were handy for late-night horse feeding. We just always remembered to swing a flashlight around and check for the gator’s presence before we went into the back pasture to dump grain.

Then the alligator discovered my round pen, which was only about twenty feet from the pond, was the perfect place for midday sunbathing.

Really annoying.

Nowadays I ride at a farm in hilly country. There isn’t a pond, so there isn’t an alligator. But since I ride Ben in a bright, sunny field adjacent to un-mown hay fields and half-wooded cow pastures, I have other animals I have to deal with.

Ben in a big hay field

Looking across the hay fields from the mown area where we ride. There is a lot of animal life out there.

Ben is a very alert pony. He likes to keep his eye on things — there’s very much a protect-the-herd instinct going on in between those pricked ears of his. He watches people walking around the farm while we’re riding, and he has a decent spook when something really surprises him, but he’s not as likely to run away from something as to stop and stare at it, maybe edge closer to it for a better look.

Think of a little kid poking something dead with a stick, then leaping backwards when it moves a little bit, then coming back to poke it again… that’s Ben.

At first we had an issue with grass snakes spooking him, but I kept riding him towards the little buggers and he decided that was fun, so now he just looks at snakes and doesn’t flip out about them. The tortoise problem… well, that’s been harder to solve.

If the best way to desensitize a horse is to ride them right up to whatever is alarming them and let them take a good look, it’s almost impossible to desensitize a horse to a gopher tortoise. These are big dry-land, burrowing tortoises who can move at a decent clip. They have beige-to-brown shells which aren’t shiny, but stand out against green grass. And because they have a sort of shambling, two-beat walk, they move a bit like, well, spiders?

So you have this thing that looks like a rounded rock, moves like a spider, and goes barreling across the field. If you can convince your horse to go take a look at it, the tortoise retreats into his shell. It’s just a rock. The horse forgets about it. You ride away. The rock-spider-demon comes back to life. The horse sees this in his rear-view mirror and freaks the eff out. IT IS MOVING! IT WASN’T MOVING BEFORE!

You ride back, to show the horse the moving rock. Only now it stops moving again. The horse loses interest.

Guys, you can do this ALL DAMN DAY, but the tortoise will always thwart your efforts.

It’s a problem.

So today I take Ben out to ride and I see that there is a tortoise in the very middle of the field. I sigh. I cannot chase the tortoise out of the field, for reasons previously mentioned. So I take Ben over to a hill and we do a little hill-work while I wait for the tortoise to get through the field.

This takes ages because the tortoise is not in a hurry, but finally he’s at the end of the field near his burrow and I say, fine, Ben, let’s go do some work.

Now, a lot of the work I do with Ben is concentrated on getting him to be cool and focused, because I want children to be happy to ride him (he is a large pony, after all). So we do a lot of walking work – about fifteen minutes most days – before we even begin trotwork.

Today the BLOODY TORTOISE is hovering near his burrow, which is under a bush at the end of the field, and doesn’t want to go in. And just as I want to start trotting, Ben sees the tortoise.

He does a little half-rear before I catch him, then I push him forward towards the tortoise while he watches, snorting. I let him come to a halt so he can have a good look.

The tortoise gazes at us. He is literally right outside his burrow. Two steps, and he could be underground and out of our hair. But no, he wants to stare us down.

“GET BACK IN YOUR HOLE YOU STUPID TORTOISE!” I command, with some expletives for extra emphasis, but the tortoise is unimpressed.

Ben has his head up and his ears pricked but he’s not freaking out, so I send him forward. Let’s chase the tortoise into the hole! He can’t possibly resist going into his burrow if we’re bearing down on him like a one-horse cavalry charge, right?

Right.. eventually, but that tortoise makes us get really close before he scurries underground. Ben is huffing. I am annoyed. It’s going to take me another five or ten minutes to bring him back down to earth and get a relaxed walk again. I turn Ben away and we do a circuit of the field.

As we turn at the top of the field, I realize the tortoise HAS COME BACK OUT OF THE BURROW.

“Oh, no, you don’t! Let’s get him, Ben!” I send Ben forward and we chase the tortoise back underground. Ben finds all of this tortoise-chasing exhilarating and is now looking for other scary things to chase. Maybe there is something scary in the woods! LET’S STARE AT THE WOODS! Maybe there is something scary at the house! OH GOD A PERSON HAS COME OUT OF THE HOUSE! SHIT, WHAT DO WE DO?

“Jesus Christ, Ben,” I say, again along with some other expletives for extra emphasis.

It keeps happening. Apparently the tortoise was only making a quick house-call, not retreating to safety, and now I cannot keep the stupid animal out of my field. I just want twenty minutes to do some trotting and get Ben to relax into the bridle, but the tortoise comes out and cuts across the bottom half of the field, then proceeds to start grazing. I cannot chase him now; he’s too far from the burrow and he’ll just go into his shell if we get near him. Ben is mostly unbothered; he doesn’t see him, but I’ve lost half my riding space.

Another ten minutes goes by before the tortoise has ambled with its awful spider shamble into the high grass of the hay field and I finally have my riding area back.

But Ben doesn’t know the tortoise has gone off on a nature walk. He keeps looking at the burrow at the edge of the field. IF IT COMES BACK OUT, I, BEN, WILL BE READY!

“It’s not coming back.”


He never really got over his desire to trample the tortoise. We did some nice trotting, some lateral work and some canter circles, and even jumped a few cross-rails, but he was always keeping an eye on that burrow. There was nothing fearful about his attitude. He just didn’t want to miss his chance. He had a taste of tortoise-chasing and by god, he wanted more.

Ben grazing

“If that tortoise comes out, I will find him and I will stomp him.”

Even after I turned him out, an hour later, he was on high alert, looking all around the pasture as if tortoises were hiding in the tree branches, waiting for him to drop his guard.

I love Ben’s hilarious macho man antics, his bantam rooster approach to life. He’s fun to ride and work with for exactly that reason. There’s so much of Ben. He’s the embodiment of that old classified ad verbiage, “personality plus.”

I’m just really, really glad this farm doesn’t have a pond. because I don’t need him to start thinking he can chase away gators.