"Treats" is Not a Dirty Word


Cirrus came into my life at the worst/best possible time (though, if I’m being honest I could probably say that about all of my animals - stories for another time). While it maybe wasn’t the MOST financially responsible decision to adopt a wild horse right after starting my own business, his bright soul kept me afloat when I found myself adrift in the details of getting everything up and running. Regardless, I know that I would not be the person I am in this moment without his teachings. 

What I have most loved in our relationship is that we are continuously growing together, two vines twining together as we climb. And while much of the journey has felt wonderfully intuitive, there has been one big struggle that we seem to circle back to again and again - helping Cirrus find motivation. He generally seems to like people and enjoys the attention we humans dote upon him, but he doesn’t seem to see much point in returning the favor. He is quietly dominant and immensely stubborn once he decides something, often wearing the “bored teenager” expression as he slowly backs away from things he doesn’t want to do (which is everything except going out to graze!).

Asking for the canter, either free in the arena or at the end of a rope, was a particularly arduous chore for both of us. I’d ask for the faster pace, with a stick or my voice or the rope, and every time he would refuse, head high and tail flashing. Literally the only way I could get him to move faster than a trot was to chase him like a crazy person - and I might get one or two stiff strides before we’d both find ourselves back at a halt - me panting and flustered, and him looking at the gate. Out with his pasture-mates Cirrus would happily race around and around, popping lead changes like a nimble dancer, so I knew he could do it if he wanted to. The problem was that with me, he really, REALLY, didn’t.

I’ll be honest and say that after having this realization, I had myself a little pity party. Because it’s never a good feeling when you realize that someone you love feels like you don’t understand what they need from the relationship. But after a couple days of wallowing, I metaphorically dusted myself off and went back to the drawing board with one question in mind : what is it that motivates my horse? 

But even then, I already knew the answer : treats.

All horses like food, but Cirrus becomes a completely different being when treats appear…boredom gives way to white fire and he seems to glow with energy. He loves food so much that when it comes time for deworming, he reaches for the syringe (which is filled with a paste that must taste awful because it makes other horses fight with all they have to avoid it). Even after the wormer has been unceremoniously squeezed into his mouth, Cirrus keeps looking for more. 

But I was not a horsewoman that used treats - ever. And at the time I had several reasons for that hard line in my mind. Firstly, my goal with Cirrus was never to teach tricks (that is, giving a specific command that produces a single response) which was how I’d seen treats used with horses in the past. I wanted to build a language with which to communicate subtleties such as distance, speed, and energy within a movement and I was afraid that using treats would make this impossible. 

I also didn’t like the feeling that I might end up being reliant on treats to do something with my horse - the idea that if I didn’t “pay” him each time he did something I asked he’d get upset or even worse, ignore me. If I’m being completely truthful, I also didn’t want others thinking I NEEDED to have treats when I was playing with Cirrus or that treats were the source of any success we might achieve in our partnership (even now, writing all of this, this worry still sits in my mind a little bit...just something to keep working on, I guess).

Perhaps the biggest component of my “no treats” policy, however, was safety. I had experienced how Cirrus’s high food drive immediately turned into pushy and nippy behavior that frankly scared the pants off of me. Because, believe me, my little horse looks awfully big when he’s coming in fast to look for goodies that I may or may not have. I didn’t want to end up hurt or with a horse that might hurt others in his quest to find the next cookie.

I found myself quite stuck. I had drawn the hard line and said no to treats - but food was the only thing I’d found that helped Cirrus to come alive and want to be a part of the conversation. I could continue to work with my dull and unmotivated horse, boring him to death a little more every day, or I could confront my own reservations and find ways to work through them so we could both be happy.

The first hurdle to overcome was remaining safe. I read my way through a few blogs about clicker training horses and learned that horses (and all animals) seeking food will start by doing the last thing that successfully earned them a treat. So, if a horse got food by coming into a person’s personal space or by nipping, next time that’s where he would start. If what worked last time was unsuccessful, the horse would then try that behavior again - but with more energy! In this way, a horse asking for treats with his lips can turn into a horse that nibbles. And those nibbles can pretty quickly turn into bites! It’s not that the horse being bad - he’s just always trying to solve the food-puzzle and has discovered that that behavior earns the reward.

So, the place to begin was by teaching Cirrus to turn his head away from me before offering the treat (because it’s pretty hard to get bitten when his nose is staying away from my body!). And I used treats to teach him about treats, meaning that he was focused and engaged throughout the process - something I had rarely seen before! The first couple of times, I just waited for him to get distracted and look away from me before offering a treat. He’s a little too smart for his own good, and within about five minutes he had learned to deliberately turn his head away from me to ask for a treat instead of trying to bite at me or my pockets.

Cirrus, holding his nose away while I reach in my pocket for a treat.

Cirrus, holding his nose away while I reach in my pocket for a treat.

After a couple of days Cirrus had learned to keep his nose turned away, but he was still using his teeth to take the treats from my hand instead of gently using his lips. I changed this behavior by adding another level to our game. I began offering the treat in my closed fist and waiting until he closed his mouth and softened his lips before opening my fingers and letting him take the treat. Throughout this process he was welcome to try and bite my fist (no punishment necessary - I stood just out of reach on the opposite side of a fence so I could easily move my hand away and avoid actually getting bitten!) but he figured out pretty quickly that this would never earn him a reward. I just kept at it until I saw a split second of softness in his mouth…and then I’d open my hand so he could eat. Within a week, Cirrus had learned that if he offered me the two keys, keeping his head away from my body and keeping his mouth closed and soft, then my “puzzle box” hand would open and deliver his beloved food. 

Soft lips, no nips ;)

Soft lips, no nips ;)

Another thing I picked up from the clicker trainers was to use a sound before delivering the treat. Instead of an actual clicker that I’d have to carry, I decided to use the word “yes!” This “bridge” allows me to mark the behavior I like and let Cirrus know that a treat is coming to thank him for his effort. It gives me the time get the treat from my pocket while reinforcing the behavior that earned the reward. I also found this really helpful because Cirrus stopped looking for treats all the time, instead waiting for the “magic word.”

So back to the canter - the least motivating thing Cirrus or I could think of. The first time I asked Cirrus to canter after introducing treats, it was like before. I had to chase him and I only got one step - but I immediately said "yes!" and rewarded him with a little food. In that moment, everything changed because I had finally added something to the equation that had value to him. And, I kid you not, within twenty minutes all I had to do was feel the energy in my body, sweep my hand in the direction of travel, and he was offering the canter with focus and exuberence, arching his neck and floating along like one of the horses on the posters I hung on my walls as a kid.


So many things have changed for the better since I started bringing treats with me to the barn. It’s not that Cirrus gets one for EVERYTHING that he does - in fact, he only goes through about 1/3 cup of grain in a session. But when he offers me a little extra effort or when I see that he’s really trying to be with me mentally, neither of which he would have done before, then I extend a little food in return. I’ve found that it's not the treats that make him want to be a part of our relationship - he chooses to take part because he knows that I know how to make our time together feel fun and rewarding. Recently, I even had a friend at the barn introduce me as the girl with the “dancing horse,” something no one would have said about Cirrus this time last year. I was pretty sure my heart was going to burst. 

I’m trying hard to keep this particular lesson at the forefront of my mind as I dig deeper into what motivates me in my creation process. It’s easy to quantify why I make specific pieces, to tell the stories and explain my stone choices, but it’s much more difficult to explain why it is that I must make to begin with. When money gets tight or I get creator’s block - the times when I need to check in with my creative fire and throw sparks on all of the ideas I’ve set aside for “someday” - I’d love to have this knowledge about myself. Seeing Cirrus transform has made me realize how big a difference it makes to put your whole heart into something - and I want that for myself in all of the days to come.