Works for Food?

To treat or not to treat? Your horse, I mean. If it’s you deciding to reward yourself with a sweet chunk of chocolate for a job well done, then by all means, the answer is, “Yes!” You can see how the conditioning works 🙂

It’s no secret that animals (and humans, obviously) can be plied with bits and pieces of favourite foods in exchange for doing something else that might be less savoury. While there’s always a “keener” or two who spins, jumps, or produces canter-pirouettes just for the heck of it and sheer joy of life, most of us want to know what we’re going to receive as a result of our efforts.

There’s a considerable amount of psychology around the methods that use reward-based training and positive reinforcement. In my own experience, most horses cue to rewards when the expectations are clear and the behavior of the handler is consistent. It also then becomes simpler for the horse to distinguish between accepted behavior and that which might elicit a more negative response from the handler. For example, withholding the treat when the anticipated response does not occur, or does not occur correctly.

I have one funny story to relay in this regard before moving on to Eclipse’s blog post on the topic:

One of the most brilliant ponies I’ve ever met was a rock-solid trooper in the arena and on the trail. He taught generations of kids and several members of one family how to ride, jump and show. Pecos was a little spotted fellow, probably from one of the Navajo herds common in northern Arizona.

As he aged, he occasionally needed a bit of therapy to stay sound and healthy. The veterinary chiropractor recommended carrot stretches to help the senior pony stay flexible. One day I arrived at the barn and noticed him in the middle of the barn’s parking lot (he had yard freedom privileges), with his head turned all the way around to the side, looking backwards. He just stood there in that position! Then his owner appeared and I asked her if he was okay. Sometimes looking at their sides can be an indicator of colic.

“Oh yes,” laughed the sprightly woman. “He’s waiting for his carrots! That’s usually the spot where we do his carrot stretches.”

So there you have it. Pecos was stretching all by himself, in pre-anticipation that he would be rewarded for doing so.

Inevitably, compassionate training involves affirming within yourself the reasoning and understanding behind rewarding your horse with a treat. Is it right for your horse? If he is already spoiled by hand-feeding, how do you change his behavior? If you reward for performance, you want to ensure that he isn’t doing something that causes him pain, just because he wants that treat so badly. There’s much to consider when working with a horse in any capacity. We always suggest beginning with a quiet mind, and then asking the question, “What is the most compassionate thing I can do for my horse, right now?” Trust your instincts when the answer comes to you.


Pecos (after delightedly rolling in the mud) stretching himself in anticipation of those carrots!



From our guest-blogger, Eclipse, as written through his mom, Melissa Deal of Victory Land Dressage:

Eclipse’s Observations on Working for Food

Do horses really work for food? Every human wonders…

This is a true story about a friend of mine that we will just call Flo to protect his owner and he from embarrassment. It is probably hard for humans to believe that this actually happened, but I think you will get a kick out of it and maybe find something useful in my story as well.

Back in the colder time here at home (NC), sometime not too distant, my mum/owner took me to Wellington. I must admit that I had my doubts on that long bumpy trailer ride despite the yummy hay and intermittent carrots that appeared during the travel. Once I got there, it was total horse heaven. I didn’t even have to go out into the bright sun and stinging bugs if I didn’t want to. I love being clean and primped and doted over, so the high end barn where we stayed was the bomb! It was like the big bucket of carrots in the sky, if you know what I mean.

It was there I met Flo, a striking chestnut stallion. He was bred for dressage and had the kindest owner, a professional dressage rider and trainer. Flo was 12 years old and pretty set in his ways. He was a really smart guy and to my mind Flo mostly got his way with everyone.

The crinkled face and frustration in his owner’s voice describing how when we would walk out around the neighborhood, Flo was all about it, couldn’t be ignored. Did I mention that this neighborhood was totally horse friendly and beautiful to humans and horses? It had lots of bright green grass which carpeted each lawn. The grass was cut to just the right height for maximum growth and tastiness, of course. They didn’t even care if you pooped in the road or took bites of the delicious algae green grass. Flo took big scopey strides, away from the barn that is. Going back toward the barn, he would drag his feet, instead of walking briskly. Even I would pass him. I walk slowly when out, so I can see everything in detail. I don’t like to go quickly in case something scary might be around the next corner. My mom was laughing about Flo’s unusual behavior. His owner lamented that Flo didn’t like to go in the ring, despite the careful and completely non forceful riding and training methods used. No spurs and a floppy whip which made a whistling noise in the air were employed to try to inspire Flo to put in a little more effort. These were the owner’s choice of motivational tools, which proved to be only mildly effective, much to his dismay. Flo’s owner was so kind, he couldn’t bring himself to do anything more forceful. While walking out back toward the barn, Flo continued to shuffle his feet on the sand and gravel road to the point of leaving longish tracks in the dust because he knew that the trip would be followed by arena work. This continued every day.


Carrots! I just know there’s carrots at the end of the trail. Let’s go!

One afternoon, I saw my mum watching as Flo’s owner chided the groom for not putting a huge pile of carrots in his stall while he was out being ridden. I mean like a mountain of perky, bright orange carrots with green tops and everything! Later, my mum confided that at dinner that evening, she spoke to his owner about this practice. She suggested that he not put the carrots in the stall during work. This practice encouraged Flo to want to go straight back to the barn after his walk about instead of to the arena because he knew the carrots were waiting. Wouldn’t it make more sense to Flo to want to work if the carrots were in the arena instead? Allegedly, the owner argued that this was nonsense and the dinner conversation moved on leaving my mum perplexed.

Dad arrived! I think in human time it was a few days in between these occurrences. However, I am not positive. He is the best. He asks nothing of me and gives me lots of scratches and treats for FREE! He is a very observant human and is always watching what is going on and he listens well too. These traits are more horse -like than human so I really dig him as much as I love a good roll in the Florida sand.

A bit of time passed after his arrival, when whispers hit my super sensitive ears. Down the barn aisle, he and my mum stood chatting quietly. He saw the most unusual thing. Flo’s owner was in the ring with a mason jar of chopped carrots on the rail. He had taken special precautions not to let anyone see him leaving the barn with the carrots. Humans are so funny! What a clown. I love this guy. He is totally entertaining.


I know you have them. And I believe I have earned at least one…now, please?

A few more dark times and light times of day passed and Flo could be seen marching promptly toward the arena after his daily pre-work walk in the neighborhood. I wondered if the humans noticed this behavior. Flo and I chatted in the evenings and it was clean water clear to me that Flo was all about the food. He was happy to be wherever the carrots were and though he had to work for the carrots, he still wanted them regardless of the effort involved. He lamented that his owner had figured out a way to get outsmart him and get him to work. But, work and eat carrots he did. As far as I know, he still does to this day. Oh yea, I also heard that he has been to his two first shows ever, recently. Flo won his classes with excellent scores. I think that’s really good, though probably not as good as munching those carrots.




The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 57 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She created “Athletic Rider Training; The ART of Horsemanship,” teaching freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010. Her program brings elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies—in particular Low Level Laser Therapy and tapping— to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in Sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a Trained National Canadian Coaching Program Endurance Coach, a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner with Athletics Canada in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D.  Photo prints and paintings are available for viewing and purchase at Susan Gordon website