Easy Treats Ideas for Clicker Training Horses

Are you curious what other people use as reinforcers (food rewards) in training?

I like dry, chunky reinforcers that are easy to feed and keep my pockets fairly clean.

Easy to use are ‘dry’ food such as:

Choosing the right reinforcer: don’t be afraid to test and change
  • Alfalfa pellets
  • Grass pellets
  • Alfalfa cubes*)
  • Timothy cubes*)
  • Timothy/Alfalfa cubes*)
  • Chaff
  • Carob
  • Oats
  • Black sunflower seeds (high calorie! Can be mixed in with lower value pellets or hay cubes)
  • Home baked treats
  • All commercial dinner pellets/dinner grain (nutritious and low sugar in comparison with commercial treats)

*) Warning: Pay attention to the hardness of the cubes. Some kind of cubes are really hard and need soaking first. Horses can also choke in them if they are not chewed well. A good way to test hardness is to see if you can break the cubes by hand. Other cubes are so dry and concentrated they become very voluptuous when dehydrated. Horses can get thirsty after eating them dry. Provide water.

Dry, but slower to deliver/take out your pocket/let your horse eat from the source

Freshly plucked grass can be a really good reinforcer
  • Handful of fresh grass
  • Handful of dandelions leaves
  • Handful of hay
  • Thistles (Kyra likes the flowers and leaves)
  • Blackberry leaves

Moist (and usually a bit more messy) reinforcers are:

Apples and carrots are high value food rewards for most horses
High in sugar and usually high in value: apples and carrots
  • Carrots
  • Winter carrot: sticks or chunks (not slices!)
  • Apple pieces
  • Pear pieces
  • Banana
  • Cucumber
  • Celery

Other reinforcers that you can use are:

Messy but good value and healthy

Some people use Cheerios as treats in training
Soaked beet pulp or dinner grain make good reinforcers
  • Soaked beet pulp
  • Soaked bran
  • Other dinner mashes

Unhealthy treats (usually high value)

Some people use Cheerios to train their horse
  • Cheerios (even ‘low sugar’ ones) and other breakfast cereal
  • Commercial horse treats (usually loaded with molasses/sugar)
  • Tic Tacs (small, which can be good and strong taste)
  • Mints
  • Sugar cubes

High value vs low value

The choice of reinforce depends on the horse, time of year and behaviour I train. Sometimes it’s also just plain practical: what do I have?

I always aim for the lowest value reinforcer. It sounds cheap, but the lowest value is still high enough to keep the horse engaged and willing to work. So for the horse it’s great. It’s easy to go from low to medium and high value, but going down in value can be risky. I usually use food that is meant as ‘dinner’ for horses: cheap (it comes in 15-20 kg bags), healthy (balanced nutrition value) and handy (dry, easy to hand feed).

What do you use? Do you have tips that I can add here? Share them in the comments.

More about Using Treats in Training:

Train Your Horse to be Safe around Food and Food Rewards

The value of your rewards

3 Tips for treats in Training

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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Myth Monday: ‘With Clicker Training the Horse only does it for the Treats (not for you)’

The statement that a horse only works for ‘the treat’ and ‘not for you’ is one that I have heard many times. In fact this is one of the most common arguments used by people who use negative reinforcement to train their horses.

 What motivates the horse: you or the food

I also prefer to think in terms of ‘motivation’ when I talk about horse training and horse behaviour: is the horse motivated to move away from something or avoid something (negative reinforcement, R-) or is he motivated by desire and wants to ‘move towards _carrot_or_stick_hippologicsomething he wants’ (positive reinforcement, R+)?

When people say ‘the horse only does it for the food’ are they afraid  of not being
‘respected by the horse’ for who they are? What is respect anyway? I don’t believe a horse respects a human the way people respect people. Most ‘respectful behaviours’ horses display in the human-horse relationship are either based on fear or simply on learned behaviours, see this post about respect.

If someone states: ‘The horse only does it for the food’, you could say the same thing for negative reinforcement: ‘He only does it to avoid something unpleasant’.

This is still not an explanation that the horse follows commands just ‘for the person’.

‘For the trainer’

I wonder how you could tell for sure that your horse is doing something ‘just for you’ and not for his own benefit (too)? That is  very altruistic. Isn’t that a very cocky assumption that your horse does everything you ask, just for you and not for himself? I agree it is very tempting to tell ourselves our horse loves us so much he would do anything just for us, but it is not realistic.

Here is a video from my horse and how she reacts when I call her [for my lovely email subscribers please click in the email to go to the post to see the video]:

Is it really altruism?

Altruism is if a horse does something only to benefit another being (increasing it’s reproductive succes) and he doesn’t increases his own fitness. Example: You want to take your horse out of the pasture for a ride. If he comes to you and leaves his horsey companions without hesitation. Is it really for you as a person (and nothing else) or is there something else (too) at the root of this behaviour?

Curiosity

Maybe he is just curious and wants to check you out (that could explain the approach, but not the part where he leaves his heard and comes with you, hence the halter).

I think the more important part is the learning process that had taken place. Either the horse was positively or negatively reinforced in the past to come with you.

Positive reinforcement

If R+ is his motivation to come to and with you: he was motivated in the past by the scratches, food, attention or something else that is desirable for him. You paired pleasant experiences with coming to you and following you out of the pasture. The horse doesn’t do it for you (only).

Negative reinforcement

If he was negatively reinforced to come with you he is motivated by the aversive that was taken away to teach him to approach and follow you. For instance chasing the horse around in the pasture until he lets him catch you. After a few times the horse has learned to ‘give up’ running away from you and let you catch him. He paired stopping an unpleasant experience (being chased) with getting haltered. The horse doesn’t do it for you.

The beauty of R+

When you introduce positive reinforcement to a horse, he understands quickly that (in most cases) food is involved. Because we don’t randomly ‘throw’ treats to them, but only provide treats after the marker or bridge signal, the horse quickly learns to pay attention to the click and not to the hand reaching for a treat.

The reinforcer in positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be food, it can be anything pleasant the horse wants to work for.

There is more to clicker training than just the food reward. The marker can also become very reinforcing, training in itself (solving ‘puzzles’ when teaching new behaviours or endorfines released by physical activity or ‘the possibility of hearing a click’) can become reinforcing and also other behaviours can become reinforcers for behaviours.

So the horse doesn’t have to work for us (clicker trainers), because we know that he will pair us with positive things in training. We don’t mind that he wants to work for a decent salary paid in clicks and reinforcers. We understand this.

Safe the date: Thursday March 7, 2019

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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