Treat-Training Horses While Riding

Our equine behavior expert offers advice for applying learning theory and treat-training horses under saddle.
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Training from the ground and saddle are different in several important ways from the perspective of both horse and human. | Photo: iStock

Q.My 4-year-old Warmblood-Anglo Arabian filly is incredibly smart. She’s one of those horses who picks up new behaviors right away, in one or two tries, if there’s food involved as a reward. This has made her super easy to train on the ground. She is more complicated (and opinionated) under-saddle, and I don’t feel like we have as many “aha!” moments when I’m riding her. She appreciates pats and verbal “good girls,” but doesn’t respond to them nearly as well as a carrot treat on the ground. How can I translate her quick learning through food motivation to our under-saddle work?

A.Training from the ground and saddle are different in several important ways from the perspective of both horse and human. Experiences and skills developed during groundwork do not always transfer automatically to riding. Being aware of some common sticking points and what to do about them can help bridge the groundwork and riding exercises gap, and improve your horse’s responsiveness and attitude under-saddle.

What is an effective reward for your horse?

The value of a reward can affect a horse’s interest in training. If your horse is like most, she’s probably more motivated by food than by praise, pats, or wither scratches1 and is more engaged in training that involves food. Many horse owners are familiar with groundwork exercises that use food rewards,2 but you can use treats while riding, as well. Clinician Alexandra Kurland has blazed the trail by developing techniques for using food rewards under-saddle.3 It takes a little practice to smoothly dispense the treats, and the horse usually has to stop to take the food, but the improvement in the horse’s interest and attitude toward training are well-worth these minor inconveniences

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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