Usually, I am not into bribery. I dislike always giving horses cookies for things. I would like a horse to go into the trailer, stand still tied, do the work they were asked, or mostly anything else because I asked them to do so. I think those expectations make for a solid equine citizen. But lately, that has certainly been changing. Since moving the horses to the barn at the house, I’ve been using treats for a lot of things – stretches, Whisper getting nervous and the treats helping her, giving them to Amber in her grain because she was a good girl or lately – giving them to Amber when she is a good, calm girl.
Which, yes she is a good, calm girl 99% of the time. But the other day as we were walking outside, the horses (a neighbor close by has 3-4 horses) started calling and calling and people were unpacking their car and the oleander bushes were waving in the breeze and looked like a solid wall and Amber just COULD NOT. She was snorting, jigging, letting her butt off the ground but thankfully not kicking, and would not settle. All of this stuff individually usually doesn’t bother her. But together, on that night, it just wasn’t happening. So I walked her a few circles, and once we were past that street she was fine.
That ride a while back where we were doing okay and then Whisper called and it all went downhill has still been firmly in my mind. While Amber used to be marvelous on the trail, Whisper hasn’t ever called before either. It was one of my biggest reasons for starting her walks outside. I can have a controlled outing, make it a lot more routine and hopefully have these outings be fun again for Amber instead of her worrying where Whisper is and not focusing on me at all. I didn’t want another day like that, so I let go of the jigging and Amber being upset, and wracked my brain for something when I came up with treats. When Amber can’t see Whisper is also when she gets very upset, so that’s why for the first few days I kept her walking with Whisper in sight. Then she seemed to get bored fast, so we went down that new street and she was not happy. So I packed a baggy full of apple slices, and first thing we walked down that street until it met the next one. OF COURSE she was fine, but at the end, I still gave her a piece of apple. I made her stretch for it, and then at the scariest part of the street near our neighbor’s goats she got another treat to stretch for. When she tried to really push up the slight incline of the street, I gave her another treat.
OMG MAGIC. This, by the way, for timeline’s sake, was Saturday evening.
So then my mom and I noticed that Amber continuously shortened her stride, and almost refused to go forward when I’d walk her in the morning around the arena or when we’d turn her out. She was pretty much limping, and just felt very apathetic. Then in the evening, she walked happily outside. I was on the verge of calling the vet before I thought to maybe walk her outside of the arena morning AND evening. So Sunday morning, I immediately took her out of her stall and straight to the street. She really labored at first like we were going to the arena, and I had to get after her a bit because really, horse can walk on her own 4 feet and I know she’s not dead lame right now because she walks fine when on the pavement.
And what do you know? She walked just fine in the morning. I took her to the arena for the last few minutes and we walked over poles and she was great at that. She then walked better in turnout as we give her hay in piles strewn about the arena to make her walk to each of them since we don’t have grass. Then she walked well in the evening too and I tried some more treat magic. She was WAY more focused on me – she could smell her apple treats and kept her nose near my pockets and consistently touched and breathed on my hand in her way of saying TREATS NOW MA. A quick poke to the nose and she walked politely next to me after that. (Not that she wasn’t initially polite but I really do not want a nippy horse so it’s preventive).
Monday morning before work, I got her out again with a few treats in a baggy. I wasn’t planning on walking farther, but we managed to visit another area that had been scary and was only a little bit further than before, and she got a treat for remaining calm and keeping it together – which there really was nothing to keep together. She just walked, was super chill, and looked very happy to be out and have her brain stimulated. I almost gave her another cookie in the “scary” part of the street with the trees and goats because horses started calling, but her only response was her head lifted a fraction and she breathed deeper. So I gave her many pets but we kept going. By that time our 20 minutes was almost up, so we walked back to the barn. She walked better over the bit of rocks, and really tried to push up the small incline going up to her stall. So she got a cookie for trying hard up the hill, and then the last cookie I’d brought once she was in her stall. Last night, we even managed to go all the way around in one of our previous walk routes and she was foot perfect.
So. Cookies. Magic. Especially for a horse that is food-motivated the cookies were perfect. I just didn’t want her to have a bad experience like that last time. Plus, if cookies can help give us really positive experiences when scratches and pets aren’t enough – that standing still and stretching in a “scary spot” or “away from Whisper” is wanted behavior instead of us potentially having a fight we shouldn’t have – then I am all for it. Slowly, I’m hoping to wean her back off of the treats, but I’m not in any hurry. If I have to continue them when we finally manage to ride outside, then that’s okay. I know she won’t always need treats because the walk yesterday was great and she only got 1 treat on the actual walk portion. It does help that we’re making things routine. When I go off routine and introduce something new (which it really isn’t, she’s seen it all before but time away makes it new, right? lol) she tends to get very unsure, especially if Whisper is calling, so being armed with treats should really help.
I also find it funny because she’s realizing when she tries hard up inclines or over poles (I’ll start the over poles rewards soon) she gets a cookie. Because hey, if mare won’t do it for herself and I’m not about to force her to do it so she hates it, and treats make it a lot better then I’m going to be buying treats and stuffing her face with them to give her more incentive to work harder haha.
What about you guys? Do you use treats to help you start something or do you prefer not to treat at all?