Treat versus Reward

Treat versus reward: what’s the difference? Many of us never think of a treat and reward as being different. But they are, especially when it comes to our horses.

What’s the difference?
• A treat is something you give your horse because you feel like being nice.
• A reward is something you give your horse because he did something nice (i.e. he performed correctly). In human terms, you get a treat because someone feels generous, but you get a reward for doing something. For example, I can treat you to dinner just because you are my friend; or I can reward you with dinner because you did something nice for me or my family and I want to repay you.

Now to help you “horsethink” a little, let me say that while a treat can be given as a reward, a reward cannot be given as a treat. But your horse does not understand these subtleties.

A reward can be a treat such as an apple or carrot. But a reward can also be in the form of ceasing work when the horse has done a job correctly. For example, after working in a collected frame for several minutes, what is the horse’s reward? To be allowed out of the collected frame and to travel relaxed. If the horse has been asked to do any difficult maneuver, what is the reward? To cease the maneuver and let him relax. Contrast this with riding your horse around and not asking him to do anything. That would be a treat for him, but it’s unlikely you would do it because it would be the same as giving him a carrot for no reason.

The right timing
Understand this – your horse always thinks he is being rewarded for something. He thinks like this: “I was standing with my head over the stall door when my rider walked up and handed me some food.” Next time your horse sees you, he puts his head over the stall door and waits for food, and you give it to him. In short order, your horse may even start to nicker at you as you come down the aisle in anticipation of the food/reward.

Perhaps you gave your horse a carrot from your pocket. Soon, your horse is pushing his nose into your pocket waiting for you to produce the food he received last time. And when you give it to him he realizes he has been “rewarded” for sticking his nose in your pocket. By now you should be able to see that he is always thinking he is getting rewarded for something. He will always be trying to think of what he did to get you to give him a treat/food/reward. He has no idea that all you are trying to do is be nice.

So how do we decide when to give a treat versus a reward? It’s easy. Give your horse treats only in his food bin or food bucket. No other time, and not from your hand. Give your horse rewards whenever you want, anywhere you want, but make sure he has done something to earn them. You can give the reward from your hand, but in order for this to work there is only one place the horse can receive his reward. He must put his head in a specific position to receive it. He must also be standing still.

Trick or treat?
Next time you want to give your horse a treat, turn it into a reward by asking him to put his head straight forward and at wither height. Do this by holding the reward in your hand in front of his head where you want it to be. When he reaches for your hand, take your hand away without giving him the reward. Let him search around, and if he tries to move towards your hand, make him stand still and offer the reward again by putting your hand back in the same place. If he tries to grab at the reward, pull it away again. Offer it again, and when he puts his head in the right position, even for a moment, open your hand and allow him to have the reward.

Now he has started to see the game for what it is. Offer him another reward the same way, and what you will get is your horse trying to be tricky and really go after it. He may even toss his head and try to get to it quicker than before. However, if he does anything other than put his head in the correct position, you must pull your hand away. If he comes at you, scold him and put him back where he was. Again offer the reward in the same spot, and you will see after a few tries that he holds his head still for a second or two. Allow him to have the reward. Do this three or four more times for this session and then end it for the day. Next day, repeat the process.

Soon your horse will stand with his head in the right position for the reward. Little by little, you will have him hold his head there longer and longer before you give him the reward. But no matter how long you decide to have him wait, always make sure he gets the reward for doing what you wanted. Random rewards Over time, you can quit giving him a reward every time. This is known as a “random” or “intermittent” rewarding. The reward comes often enough for the horse to feel that it’s worth asking for by putting his head in the correct position, but not so often that you must reward him every time he puts his head there. Random rewards work because there is enough incentive to keep him trying.

Have you ever seen a dog beg at the edge of a table? He seems to stay there for the whole meal. How come? Because someone once fed him from the table and he learned that if he waited there long enough, the same thing would happen again. Your horse will learn this patience too.

Putting the system to work
Now you can use the reward system for anything you want. At the Spanish Riding School, they often reward the stallions after they have performed an “Airs Above the Ground” maneuver. The stallion will leap and land, and the handler will walk up and offer him a food reward. The handler keeps the food in a pocket area in the tail of his coat; if you watch closely, you will see him reach for it. The stallion never tries to get to the food reward himself. Instead he stands quietly waiting for it. Now you know how to keep your horse from mugging you for a treat, and teach him the patience to wait for a reward!

Scot Hansen is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, and has trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award winning Self Defense for Trail Riders clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn, and offers professional training and clinics in Thinking Horsemanship and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more at To ask about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260 or e-mail

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