Oh, The Heresy!

Just thought I’d put all my cards on the table and tell you I train with food rewards, if you haven’t guessed it already.

I unabashedly feed rewards from my hand. I know full well this is a giant no-no in the minds of many, many trainers.

I even reward with food under saddle.  The funny thing about this is, my horses seem to really enjoy being ridden. Maybe it’s because the source of all good things, me, is on their back. I’m like a portable lunch box accessible at all times. They like to take me with them.

I liken this to the mare-foal relationship. The mare is basically a giant milk dispenser. She too is the source of all good things in the foal’s mind. It’s no great leap for the foal to understand that if it moves towards mama, it’s moving towards something wonderful.

I want to be that something wonderful. I believe by training in a manner similar to the mare-foal dynamic, I become just that.

The reason I don’t have all the problems from hand feeding is that I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever feed from my hand unless the horse has first heard the sound that means a reward is coming. For me that sound is a click from my tongue. My horses completely understand that unless they’ve heard that click, there is no reason to expect food.

The problem comes with indiscriminate hand feeding, where horses are handed all sorts of goodies, willy nilly, with no rhyme or reason. Oh look, it’s a cute pony. Here’s a carrot for being so cute. Soon that cute pony begins to mug and barge because it’s looking for what it did to get a carrot the first time.

If you want a horse to bite you,
give it a treat without it knowing what it did to get the treat.

Horses are complete masters at figuring out patterns. If you give a horse a treat at the exact moment it nuzzled you, you can be guaranteed it will nuzzle you again whether you want nuzzling or not. It may begin nuzzling really hard, in fact, because he’s very serious about getting the same result (treat), gosh darnit.

I believe food is probably the single most powerful motivator for a horse. It goes back to its first imprinting as a foal. The foal’s first motivation, besides opening its eyes and figuring out, Where am I? is probably, Where’s the milk? The power of this imprinting should not be underestimated, in my mind.

Then I often hear, Well, what happens if I stop using food? Won’t the horse expect it and not perform?

I train with food and without food. When I use food, I always use the sound of a click to say, Right answer, good job. If I’m not using food, I do not click. I’ll use a verbal cue, Good boy or Good girl, and reward with a scritchy scratch on an itchy spot, or something else the horse finds motivating. With my PTSD horse, often his reward is me walking away.

Even when I plop a pile of hay in front of them, I click individually because food is coming. This also signals to them to wait until I click to eat their hay.

When a horse is first learning something new, I click and reward like crazy. After the horse learns it, I’ll put many behaviors together and click much less. My frequency of my clicking and reward completely depends on my horse’s focus. If their mind begins to wander, I click more often.

This is part of the language of the horse that we don’t speak very often. I believe in their mind, they expect to work for food. At liberty just to eat a clump of grass, there’s work involved. There’s walking over to the grass (targeting), there’s grasping the grass in their teeth, there maybe holding the grass to shake of the dirt, then they get to eat.

So four very clear behaviors occurred: Walking/targeting, grasping, holding, shaking. Then it eats. To teach my four horses to paint, I simply put all four of those innate behaviors on cue using food as a reward (yes, from my hand).

I never cease to be amazed at how my horses love to paint. I think it has something to do with recognizing what the horse is doing, or enjoys doing, or does naturally and predominately in the course of their day. It makes me really like being their lunch box.



3 thoughts on “Oh, The Heresy!

  1. “Then I often hear, Well, what happens if I stop using food? Won’t the horse expect it and not perform?”

    I find people often really struggle to understand this. Agility dogs are a good example, as many people agility trainers clicker train, yet you can’t use a clicker or food rewards when running a course.
    They do just like positive/clicker horse trainers do–train and reward small behaviors, then gradually build up to bigger behaviors and longer behavior chains, until the dog understands the behavior well enough to do it on its own (or better yet, until the behavior becomes self-reinforcing).

    Sometimes, people tell me their dog or horse is not food-motivated. This always leaves me scratching my head. He’s not food-motivated? Then why is he still alive? Why ever does he keep eating?

    Mary H.

  2. I think the problem is with term ‘treat’ after the word click. Click/treat. For humans, we naturally assume that a treat would be something like a couple of M&M’s as reinforcer, not a sprig of broccoli.

    Because of the M&M assumption, people feel that have to buy official prepackaged horse treats in order to meet official treat criteria. Most horses I’ve encountered are not really motivated by commercial horse treats. I think they much prefer the simple substances that they know and recognize as keeping them alive, like what you’re saying.

    This is usually at the root of the statement “My horse just doesn’t like treats.” How ’bout working with something he does like? Just cuz we find alfalfa pellets unappealing, doesn’t mean horses feel the same way.

    When I first got DaVinci, my recovering PSTD horse, he wouldn’t take food from my hand and was really suspicious of anything pelleted that would make noise landing in a bucket. We trained with hay for along time. It worked great.

    Me, however, I’ll work for M&M’s, especially hard for the dark chocolate ones!

  3. Good points!

    People get too hung up on the click-treat mindset, when rather, we should just consider what would work as motivation for that horse in that instant. I know a yearling who LOVES having her back end scratched. Scratches are a good reward for her.

    Mmmm… I like M&Ms too!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s