There is much to consider when you’re serious about positive reinforcement training and want to use treats. This is not the occasional sugar cube I am talking about.
Let’s see what’s important in clicker training your horse and choosing the right appetitive or food reward.
Value of the reinforcer can change over time
Value of reinforcers can change so I keep that in mind too. Kyra loves to work hard for hay cubes in Winter, but in Summer not so much.
In Spring and Summer I often use dandelion leaves or simply freshly plucked grass. Kyra has EMS so she won’t be full time in a pasture anymore. That’s why a handful of juicy grass will always be high value for her.
Low sugar grass pellets (simple to use and cheap to buy in bulk since it’s a ‘dinner grain’ type of feed) will do year round for Kyra.
Occasionally the value ‘wears off’ and I will mix in a few sunflower seeds or different kind of dinner pellets I get from other people, to make the reinforcer more interesting and less predictable.
Home made treats: cheap, easy and sugar free
I also bake my own treats (find the DIY home made horse treats recipe here) and it’s easy and cheap in comparison to store bought treats. You can choose the flavour, too. I usually make them with lots of cinnamon or tumeric (both anti inflammatory). All horses seem to like those flavours. People love the cinnamon ones and are fairly disappointed if I tell them no sugar is involved. 😉 The smell is soooo good!
Healthy vs Unhealthy
One thing to consider is the amount of reinforcers you use. If you would put all the treats you use in a day in a bucket, how much do you think that will be? The amount of all sessions added together.
If you use 10 reinforces per day and you choose apple pieces, that would be 2 apples or 1 if you make the pieces really small. If you use 15-20 per session and train 3 sessions a day that will add up.
So ‘healthy’ is one thing to consider. I used to feed handfuls of grass pellets in the beginning of Kyra’s training, when I was in the phase of taming her. She was born in the wild and untouched when I got her. She didn’t eat anything she didn’t know: no carrots/apples, commercial treats in the wild!. She only wanted to eat hay and grass pellets.
How much reinforcers do you use?
So I had to use lots! When I realized how much pellets I was actually using in just a 5 minute session, I was shocked. I calculated I used 1,5 to 2 scoops of pellets a day. Full scoops! I fed handfuls per click so it went really fast. Kyra was still very scared of me at the time and had hay available at all times, so I didn’t have much choice. She choose her hay from the net over hay from my hand in the first few days.
This was a lot, for a yearling, so I reduced the amount I fed after a few days by making the sessions shorter and the breaks between sessions longer so I wouldn’t overfeed her. She also had made great progress in accepting me nearby. Once I could feed smaller hands of pellets I could decrease the overall amount significantly.
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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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More articles about using food reinforcers
Easy treat ideas for clicker trainers
3 Reasons to use treats in training
Clicker training 101: Tips for Treats
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