Should you use food treats when training horses?

Written by Monday, 14 September 2015 14:53

When people tut tut or look like they're sucking a lemon when I reward my horse with a food treat I say 'Well, if it's good enough for Beezie Madden, then it's good enough for me!'  Beezie, for those who don't know, is one of the top show jumping riders in the world, is an Olympic Gold Medalist and made history last year by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious King George V Gold Cup at Hickstead on Cortes 'C'. The pair then did it again this year, just in case you weren't paying attention!

The Madden team started to train their horses using reward (positive) reinforcement after Shawna Karrasch tried out her On Target Training techniques at their yard. They were so impressed by her results, that they decided to adopt her methods to create motivation, trust and relaxation in all their horses, helping them to learn to learn more effectively.

"The On Target Training system fills a big hole by giving us a way to reward the horse during training." Beezie Madden.

Now I'd be misleading you if I left you thinking that it's all about food!  Yes the horse associates a food reward with performance, but it's also linked with a bridge signal, often a clicker. And for those of you worrying that feeding treats as a reward leads to being constantly mugged for food, actually it doesn't, as long as you reward properly.  As with all training, timing is everything so reward immediately a horse has made the required effort (or try) and offer the reward away from your body so they know they have to remove their noses from your pocket to even get a whiff of one!

With my horses I don't use a clicker, simply saying good boy or girl as my bridge, but I can see the advantage of training with a clicker as it then becomes transferable between different handlers/owners. I also mainly use food treats when doing work on the ground. For instance it really helped when I was free schooling my mare over jumps and she seemed to keep that enthusiasm even when ridden. But I can't quite get my head around using it as a training aid whilst I'm riding. That's definitely something I need to investigate more and would love to hear from anyone who does and get some tips.

I'm not sure Shawna would approve of my homestyle technique so if you want to find out more about the official version then go to



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  • Comment Link Julie Moore Thursday, 29 December 2016 16:59 posted by Julie Moore

    Hi Ems, we've got A Connie who can be a food mugger so only rewarded him when his head turned away from my body and or after getting him to step back. This has to be established from get-go. Anyway, I'm no expert but hopefully this link will help

  • Comment Link Ems Hooper Monday, 30 November 2015 13:49 posted by Ems Hooper

    My pony came to me as a treat mugger ... I'd like to try clicker training but he can smell a treat from thirty feet away and once he has received one well timed reward there is no refocusing him. He's just completely pocket or hand orientated from that moment on. I've used clicker training successfully with dogs before, I kidding my rather obstinant and food orientated husky, but I have to say that rather than struggle and make the situation worse I have backed away from rewarding my pony during work. Are you able to suggest any practical strategies, or point me towards some good links about how to overcome a mugging pony when trying to reward train?

  • Comment Link sarah west Thursday, 17 September 2015 15:52 posted by sarah west

    I think you have made a really good point Julie about rewarding properly. With all training methods timing is crucial. At Bowhayes we use treats in the form of carrots all the time, from tacking up to piaffe work. However, Lucinda is mindful not to give treats without them being earned, this does help us from being mugged!!