Carrots Aren’t Enough.

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We’ve had a lot of company at the farm lately. Sometimes I take them into the family pen. The Grandfather Horse is there with his goat, Arthur. Edgar Rice Burro peers from under his eyebrows as he begins the suave stroll over.  Bhim only inches forward, carefully calculating distance. Clara is always working her plan for world domination. In this case, she has to hurry to make it look like it was her idea to walk over in the first place. Then Nubè, unassuming, hyper-sensitive, and over 17 hands materializes over my shoulder like a shadow. Grace keeps to the outskirts where she’s most comfortable, watching for a gap to fill. She’s the most common target of Clara’s ambition.

Once we’re all in the pen we do my favorite thing: Mill around and just be there. Maybe lay a hand on a shoulder and breathe. Edgar will re-adjust his backside a few times for the scratching convenience of newcomers. There are some sideways glances, as the introductions are made and compliments are exchanged. Voices are low and eyes are soft. Mainly we’re just tail-swooshing each others flies off and listening to the wind in that time-honored herd sort of way.

The only thing that separates me from the animals is a lot of words, so when I’m not talking much, the gap closes really quick. –Brian Andreas

It’s about then that a visitor always apologizes to a horse for not bringing carrots. It’s said with good intention. They think that a soft muzzle exhaling is asking for something but the horse is just sharing breath. I tell her that they aren’t looking for treats; she doesn’t need to buy her way in. She’s fine just as she is.

(Yes, you heard right. I don’t give treats as a habit. Every time I try to write about it, I get a lot of criticism, but I think I’m just not explaining it well enough. Here goes.)

Relationship is never about treats. Give as many as you want. Horses will respond with individual honesty; some will walk away, some will get aggressive, and some horses will show signs of anxiety that frequently get mistaken for affection.

Back in our pen, the horses are being with us by choice. No one is in need or lack. There’s no exchange of services. Everybody is just who they are: Equals. The other word for that is Release.

The first time I read that the best treat for a horse was release, I thought it was the most inane idea. It hurt my feelings. I wanted his reward to be obeying me like a robot minion. How could he possibly want a break from the white-hot glare of my co-dependent love? How could a partnership with a horse possibly work if he had any other option? (Oh, ick. Is that Sting singing If You Love Somebody Set Them Free?)

But I was selling myself short. It was my own leadership that I didn’t trust.

If we had carrots that day in the pen, everything would have been different. I’d have to watch the Grandfather Horse. Back in the day, he was violently pushy. The treat rule was never by hand, always in the bucket. Carrots are a little too precious to him. If Clara sees them, she’d have to chase Grace even farther away. Nubè has a long ulcer history; he’d be frantic with anxiety. Bhim doesn’t care about treats, and Grace gets the fear cue. Even Edgar, left to his own thoughts might give up the moral high ground and roll you around in the dirt until your pockets are empty or you’re undressed, whichever comes first.

And I would have failed a bit. It’s my job to keep everyone safe and in a heartbeat we’d lose that zen. Begging for treats isn’t a way of showing affection to a human, and that stomping and nipping is anxiety. Yup, if we’d had carrots, we’d need to be on the other side of the fence.

I explain to my visitor that in my barn, that sometimes treats are a distraction, like a chatty waitperson when you and your lover are having a romantic dinner. It changes the story. I want the relationship to honest and freely chosen. Sure, it takes more time to connect without the treat. You have to breathe slowly, and catch his eye. Then let the silence and your heart do the rest. Linger in that quiet place. Horses want leaders who bring calmness and safety. There is no sweet shortcut to trust. You have to put the horse first for so long as long as it takes, until he knows he can depend on you.

A carrot is quick exchange, without connection or intimacy. Carrots can be a little like whips; they’re shortcuts to communication. We go to them too quickly to get a result fast, instead of training understanding. Lol and ttfn speed up the conversation but the substance is lost.

You see, we’re all equals in the herd until Warren Buffett arrives. Or Scarlett Johanssen. (or in my case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg)–and then the herd goes nuts, embarrassing themselves screaming and jumping up and down, hoping to get the attention of  someone with… so many carrots. If the horse shows more anxiety than confidence, treats aren’t doing their job.

 Does it take a treat to get near your horse? Is a treat a minor aid for training? Or is it like a post-game celebratory high-five? It isn’t enough. Consider developing a high-value treat within yourself. Let it make him confident and strong inside. Give him the ultimate reward; Release. Breathe. Peace.

Partnership is where altruistic reason exists in both partners. The confidence that comes with working together is its own reward–call it herdship. Let the carrot be an afterthought confirmation if you like, but now and then, give your horse a chance to show you his loyalty. Let him choose to volunteer.

The day will not be won or lost if you feed carrots. What matters to your horse is that your leadership skills eventually become even more dependable than his sweet tooth. Bribery will never take the place of trust. Because when push comes to shove and he’s scared out of his wits on a trail ride, or when the range fire is coming and he has to get in the trailer right now, or when he’s hurting, in pain from an injury, and trying to hold it together until the vet comes, all the carrots in the world won’t make him feel safe.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

64 thoughts on “Carrots Aren’t Enough.

  1. Karen Corsini

    I feel the same way about treats – you explained it better &put the pieces together. I do use carrots for “carrot stretches” my vet suggested I do with my horses after I ride.

  2. Susan Bonner

    Excellent. So very well put. I’ve never been a treat giver – to me it feels a bit like cheating. I don’t want my relationship with my animals to be the result of payola:)

  3. Maggie Frazier

    Wish I had been reading you back when I had my boy! This is such a better explanation than – NO hand feeding – period! And youre right – although Chico loved carrots – pears were his absolute “fav”! I spent most of my together time grooming – which he loved – and I know he considered me “his”! Very good article as always.

  4. Lynell Abbott

    Guilty as charged, again! But I do so with eyes wide open, knowing I haven’t secured love or respect. However, I do make a game out of sneaking a carrot to # 3 horse without #1 horse’s knowledge and can only assume #3 horse is very grateful!

      1. It is a tough topic. I just been offered a beautiful pasture, the only downside is the lady who owns it. She takes great pride in providing the horses that currently reside there, with apples and carrots on a daily basis. Not her horses. When I looked at the pasture the horses treated us like walking candy machines. ..Well meant kindness creating monsters..at its worst.

  5. The day is not won or lost if we feed carrots. Thank you for this article however reminding me to pull back on the carrots a bit. I own an OTTB and he (in my opinion anyway) is the best horse on the planet. He currently has a wound on his leg and it is requiring due diligence wound care. Hence explains the 10 pound bags of carrots purchased as a diversionary tack tick! I have noticed most recently an attitude as if to say. If you don’t have carrots, good-bye, adios amigo! So, hurry up and heal wound the carrots need to decrease big time! Thanks again for your words to remind me to treat him like a horse and not just my kiddo.

  6. IMO anxiety and pushiness around treats comes from the herd when the dispenser of the treats has not established the clear boundaries as to what is acceptable behavior for the treat being released.

    “Horses want leaders who bring calmness and safety. There is no sweet shortcut to trust. You have to put the horse first for so long as long as it takes, until he knows he can depend on you.”…THIS…but it has to be true even when giving treats.

  7. Sharon

    It has taken a bit to leave the treats behind, not completely, but they are not always in my pocket anymore. I give scratches or just stand by and chat. I do believe the attitudes are better. Thank you for another well written blog 🙂

  8. LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS!!

    al·tru·is·tic
    ˌaltro͞oˈistik/Submit
    adjective
    showing a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others; unselfish.
    “it was an entirely altruistic act”
    synonyms: unselfish, selfless, compassionate, kind, public-spirited

  9. JKS

    The moment you know you’ve learned a horse’s trust is a big thing. When I’d had my horse only 6 months, he’d figured out that I was his person, but aside from that it was only his willing nature that kept him “volunteering” for work- Until the day I needed to trailer him to the vet for a dental procedure. I had to lure him into the trailer with a treat, and reward him for getting in with a lot of pats (he’s used to a stock trailer- this was a tiny two horse straight load- I don’t blame him for being hesitant!). I was in the room for the whole procedure, hung out with him while he was coming out of sedation, and when he was fully awake and ready to go he followed me right into the trailer, and our relationship has been vastly different since that day. We have a bond now that we didn’t have before. He will leave his dinner if he sees me come with a lead rope. He knows me by my walk and follows me around the arena just in case I need something. He knows without a doubt that I take care of him, and he takes care of me.

    He gets treats after a ride for a job well done, but he also knows that he needs to respect my bubble and be a gentleman in order to get them. I can’t buy his respect- but I did earn it (though as with all horses- you have to keep earning it! He’ll take advantage if I don’t!)

  10. Jeannetta

    Anna, thank you for this! I needed to “hear” your well written piece. I am guilty of too many treats and not enough release. I’ll work on changing that.

  11. I never gave treats until I got my unwilling horse with an iffy past. After many months I started with carrots. He is very respectful and seemed to help him want to learn. Found out recently he has ulcers. Wondering now…..

  12. When my horse and I got carrots along with our blue ribbon and special mug at our last dressage show, I learned that Lance loves carrots beyond all reason – he won’t even go romp and play when turned out if he can smell a carrot! Your post came at a good time for us.

  13. Stef

    Thank you! Need to bookmark this article for the time when I finally get my own horse! I wonder though how I can still clicker train and treat without falling into the treat trap? Any thoughts?

  14. Difficult subject, *really* well handled. I credit “carrots with rules” as the only way I could’ve formed any partnership at all with a highly resistant rescued orphan foal raised in isolation til 2 without relying on training methods that extinguished the lights in his eyes for nothing more than minimum compliance. The rewards with rules approach absolutely saved us both and works incredibly well for day-to-day stuff. It begins to feel like micromanaging to train for situations like those you name with higher anxiety attached to them, and, I admit, it’s my own natural monkey mind that wants to believe I can keep his wits on me using the short-cut, reward way. He’s not exactly a natural at herd living, but I will put in the time…stillness…release…breath…peace…if it gets us the confidence and dependable trust I want. Thank you for clarifying the distinction and value for me.

  15. lytha

    “A carrot is quick exchange, without connection….”

    Did anyone else see that? A one-night stand vs marriage? Anna, did you at least think it when you wrote it?

  16. I totally agree Anna. Since I have stopped having treats in my pocket I have finally stopped being mugged and searched. If I were to walk out where all three are together I would get mugged. I have people come to spend time with my horses and I am very strict that they do not have treats in their pockets and no hand feeding. Just too dangerous.
    On the subject of connection, I have seen it growing between my horses and I as I spend time with them and just “be”. No treats, no agenda just me hanging with my horses. I have learned so much about them and how they communicate and even just the fact that they are actually listening and if given the time will respond to my simple requests of “come here next to me” ” follow me if you would”, “I’ll walk with you”. So happy to have this time with them.

    1. Great comment. In a way, it’s learning to speak their language instead of “treating” them in our language. Great comment, thank you for sharing it. (Mugging part especially appreciated.)

  17. Christine peart

    Thankyou for the article. I use treats to train my ponies, no pressure, release or whips, long sticks etc., just verbal que learnt through positive reinforcement. She’s happy learning with lots of praise and scratches or treats and gets a windfall treat at the end. we have a wonderful relationship and when out and about she will try anything for me.

  18. Beth Weaver

    I would love to hear a debate between you and Alexandra Kurland, who writes a blog about clicker training horses. You both have something worthwhile to say. I am on the fence about treats. I think you can use clicker training and treats to quickly get a point across and communicate what you are asking, but I also agree that they don’t teach trust. You have to earn that by being the leader and keeping them safe.

    1. I use a version of clicker training, with horses, and humans in lessons. I want to have a training tool box with all kinds of tools in it. No one technique will work for all horses…

  19. Sandy Filippi

    I usually share your writings eagerly, but am sad to say this is not one of them.
    I agree that building trust and partnership are paramount in our interactions with our horses, but I feel you are throwing out the baby with the bath water here. Positive reinforcement training is a powerful tool. Horses can be easily taught how to take food rewards without mugging, and adding the audible marker for behavior has elicited many ‘Helen Keller’ moments for my horses, as they came to understand what the sound meant, for the behavior I was looking for, and the reinforcement that followed.
    You are obviously a skilled trainer, who breaks down each behavior and rewards appropriately. So many people don’t know how to do this, and don’t have access to trainers who do, and the horses suffer. Please do not discount how much good can be done for horses and humans when a system based on reward and breaking behaviors down into understandable bites is finally making its way into horse training.

    1. The example given wasn’t a training situation. For training I agree with you. There are situations that treats are a useful tool. For me, I want a toolbox with so many options that I can communicate with each unique horse. It isn’t about treats or not, it’s about the horse. I do think you and I have always agreed on that. And I apologize if I’ve crossed a line here.

  20. We do need to understand all aspects of learning theory, and I use positive reinforcement as much as possible. For new behaviours a click and an appetitive reinforcer – usually a treat. As the horse learns the behaviour and it is reliably on a cue then I fade out the clicker and use a verbal bridge signal with variable reinforcers – so either a lip curling scratch or a treat.
    I do agree with you that giving out treats ad lib can cause problems in horses that have not been trained to have impulse control around food rewards.
    Food is a very powerful motivator and reinforcer and I don’t think we can dispense with it altogether if we use positive reinforcement.
    Of course there are many who only use negative reinforcement and as you say it is then the release of the aversive stimulus (pressure usually) that acts as the reinforcer.
    We all use what we feel is ethical for us as individuals.

    1. Valuable comment. Thank you, and for me, the more I understand and use calming aids, the better the training goes. I’m not saying there is no value to treats, just like to see them used with a purpose. Again, thanks.

  21. Frances

    I eagerly await your ‘writings’ in my e-mail inbox and this one is brilliant! I part loan a horse (ex-race TB) here in the UK.
    When I first started visiting her and getting to know her she was depressed, and always facing the back corner of her box. I wasn’t in a hurry to ride her (I also wasn’t worried if I couldn’t ) and did lots of grooming, groundwork and just hanging out with her. I used to give her hand fed treats as I ‘felt sorry’ for her. I now realise that this was benefitting my feelings more than helping her, as she became a bit pushy, constantly nudging and searching me. We now have reached a ‘treat truce’ and she knows that after we have ridden out, she gets her groom, feet checked etc etc and then she gets carrots/treat etc in her manger, she even steps back and waits while I put them in. It’s a win win situation as I like to thank her for looking after me and she gets her treats!! We are constantly learning together even though she’s 25 and I’m 50!! Thank you for another brilliant article!

  22. Joan Summers

    The truth is…(oh how I love a sentence that begins with this!)….For me, total confidence, worthiness and trust in myself come and go. Being consistent is so necessary for horses, I would be near the back of the herd. I practice love whenever fear appears and that usually does the trick. When I am fully in my true self I am a lead mare. My ability to do whatever it takes to keep my loved ones safe and healthy is a trusted attribute. Practice is the key! So….I know when I offer my truth, my authentic self to a horse, their partnership is the reward. I can feel it in my heart. Why would I insult them with a treat? How would I feel in their hooves?

    1. Consistency is a challenge for both humans and horses, and for me, if partnership is an ice cream sundae, a treat might be the cherry on top. Not the big sweet part, something that can be added or not. Great comment, thank you

  23. danaji

    “Give him the ultimate reward; Release. Breathe. Peace.”
    Well, that pretty much sums it up – beautifully!

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