My philosophy has always been to not give horses an edible treat for good behavior because they don't make an association between what they just did, and the treat being some sort of reward. It's like they did something right, got a release, and all of a sudden "Ooh, a treat! What a nice surprise!" (in their eyes). I always thought giving a timely release was the ultimate reward. For example, if I wanted to teach my horse how to back up in hand, I wouldn't give him a treat every time he took a step back. It seems that horses that receive a lot of treats can be pushy and mouthy (depending on their personality and training, of course).
Now when it comes to teaching a trick, I see people encourage using treats. I can understand this because sometimes the treat is needed to coax the horse into position (like putting its head down to bow, or putting its head around you to "hug" you). However do they really associate a bow or a trick with getting a treat after? Do they really do the trick because they want a treat, or because you are putting pressure on them? Would a simple pressure and release concept work for tricks?
Right now I want my horses (who are on 200 acres) to come when I whistle. We have LOTS of grass and don't really feed grain, but I think it would be good to give them something to keep them "interested". I don't have any issues catching them, but I have to walk out in the field to do it. They won't actually approach me until I get about 10 yards from them. If I feed them every time I let out a whistle, am I training them to "come"? If I give them a treat every time they come up to me (after I whistle) will they learn that it's the correct behavior, or will they just associate me with food?
^ The problem I have with that concept is that it's like bribery, and what if I don't have a treat when the horse gets to me? For example, if a horse gets loose and I have trained it to come to me with a whistle, what if he comes over but "checks" me (stretches out the neck and sniffs me without letting me get close enough to actually catch them) and sees I don't have a treat, so he goes about his business? That's the problem I have with food bribery. If it's not there, the horse will lose interest, so he doesn't really "want" to be with you. So I may have trained him to come over and investigate me, but that's it (my horses are extremely friendly and will investigate mercilessly, so I'm not worried about that part, it's just a generalization).
I've seen videos of people training their horses using treats. These people are accomplishing things too - but I feel like a treat is kind of an artificial aid, you know? Just like draw reins or something, once they're removed, the horse goes back to its normal way of business. Couldn't the same be said with treats? If horses truly do associate treats with good behavior, when you stop giving treats every time the horse performs something correctly, will it just go back to its normal way of business?
Another thing with treats is how mouthy they make horses sometimes. I'm sure everyone who reads this is familiar with what I mean - any animal that gets handfed frequently will eventually skip the "investigation" step when you hold your hand out and go straight to nibbling. I don't like that.
Just from my experience with horses, I don't think giving them treats is a substantial way of rewarding them. I always think that a timely release is all they need. But if you give them *occasionally* and randomly, the horse will maintain a certain curiosity about you and not be so disappointed if you don't give him a treat when you first greet him. Does that make sense?
My main questions about treats are: Can they truly be used as an associative reward, and do they make horses "friendlier"?
NEXT I just have to ask about clicker training, which is something completely foreign to me. My friend has goats and I couldn't help but be amazed (and highly amused) when she started clicking her clicker and all the goats came stampeding into the barn to eat. I figured if that could be done with goats, why not horses? Minus the stampeding part, hopefully. Would you just make a clicker noise every time you gave a release so the horse associated release with that noise?
All in all I just want to hear everyone's experience, advice, and opinion about clicker and treat training. Thanks a bunch in advance. I am really curious to see what people have to say!