Yes, it’s OK to give your horse treats when he’s scared

Personally, I am an advocate of using food rewards with horses – especially when they learn something new or during veterinary procedures (where possible). When it comes to using food rewards with the horse who is afraid, many owners are worried that they can reinforce the horse’s fear. The same applies to comforting the fearful horse. So how is it? Can we really reinforce the horse’s fear this way, and make it worse?

Fear can be learned

In fact, fear can be learned, reinforced, and it can get worse over time. And yes, there can be a conditioned ( = learned) fear as a reaction to some stimulus. It means that horses (as well as other living beings) can learn to be afraid of a certain stimulus. They can also generalize their fear to other, similar stimuli.

Also, food is a reinforcer – it reinforces the horse’s behaviour, and make it occur more likely in the future.

But please, don’t confuse these two things. Each of them operates on a different level.

Fear is not a behaviour

Food as a reinforcer reinforces a certain behaviour learned by operant conditioning. It requires that the horse thinks about what has earned him a reward last time, and repeats this specific behaviour to earn more rewards.

Fear, on the other hand, is an emotion, not a behaviour. Fear is ruled by different parts of the brain than thinking and learning through operant conditioning. It’s a simpler, evolutionary older part of the brain that is responsible for the fear reaction.

Horses cannot decide whether to feel fear or not. Also, horses cannot decide how much fear will they feel in certain situations. It’s impossible for them to learn that feeling fear is what earns them a reward, and if they want more rewards, they simply need to feel more fear. When I put it like this, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Actually, both fear and learning require a different emotional system to be “on”. For fear, it is the fear system (surprisingly), while for learning, it is the seeking system. These two systems are the antagonists to each other. The more afraid the horse is the lower his ability to think and learn.

However, a specific behaviour the horse does when he is afraid can be reinforced this way. If, for example, the horse is afraid of a vet, he takes a step away every time the vet approaches which is immediately followed by offering the horse food to lure him closer, then the horse can learn that stepping away is what leads to a reward.

Food rewards don’t reinforce the horse’s fear

Don’t be afraid, by feeding treats to a scared horse, you don’t reinforce fear. Feeding a horse who is scared can be actually beneficial as it helps the horse associate a fear-inducing stimulus or a situation with a pleasurable stimulus – food.

This technique is called counter-conditioning. I use it a lot with my animals and my patients – and it works well! The process of chewing food while holding the head low also helps calm the horse down.

Counter-conditioning means changing the emotional association with a certain stimulus. I will explain this: Now let’s come back to the example when the horse is afraid of a vet. This horse has associated a certain vet with unpleasant or painful stimuli such as injections, and other veterinary procedures.

Every time the vet appears in the stable, this horse starts showing obvious signs of stress even if the vet comes to check another horse. That’s how powerful the associations are.

The horse has connected the vet with pain, fear, or other unpleasant things. Counter-conditioning in this specific case means that every time the horse sees that vet, he gets food. The vet walks through the stable – our horse gets food. The vets come to see another horse – our horse gets food. This is how we can change the horse’s association from unpleasant (the presence of the vet = pain and fear) from pleasant (the presence of the vet = food).

So, if your horse is not too scared to take food rewards, use them. They will help. Also, things like comforting a horse, speaking calmly to him work the same way. They don’t reinforce the horse’s fear. Just make sure your horse doesn’t do any behaviour you don’t want to see him repeating right before the food comes.

Get your treats ready before the procedure!

Feeding your horse treats during the veterinary or husbandry procedure is beneficial whether your horse is affraid or not. Associating a person (a vet or another professional) or a situation (wound cleaning, clipping, etc.) with enjoyable thing such as food helps your horse create a better association. This association will affect how the horse will feel and react in similar situations in future!

Where to store your treats

Having treats in the treat pouch is much better then carrying them in your pockets. Here are a few ideas:

What treat to use

It’s great to give the horse something really delicious, something they really like. But high-value treats can make the horse too excited. This is why I like to use some low energy horse food or alfalfa pellets to which I add a few treats of a higher value:

"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >