3 Reasons to Use Treats in Training

Treats, or food reinforcers, can be used in training very effectively. Three good reasons to use them are:

  • key lesson Table Manners_hippologic_safe handfeedingTrain wanted behaviour quickly
  • Animals are very motivated to earn their click and rewards. Therefor you can fade out the reinforcer and still get the behaviour. That is called a variable reward schedule. It’s very powerful!
  • It makes training very enjoyable for the horse and he will make positive associations with you and your training. A positive bond with your horse depends on the negative encounters being outweighed by the positive ones. Using positive reinforcement in training will give your bond a great boost.

Use Treats in Training Effectively

Timing is everything in clicker training horsesFeeding treats as a reward won’t necessarily get you the desired outcome. You have to use treats as reinforcer. To strengthen behaviour, not just to reward behaviour.

Be clear

Most important way to turn your reward into a reinforcer is to be clear why the horse got the treat.

You can communicate this effectively with the use of a marker signal, to mark the wanted behaviour. This is the best kept secret in horse training! This is very important: to use a marker signal!

COMMON FEARS ABOUT HAND-FEEDING HORSES

People who use food reinforcers are frequently confronted with a lot of misunderstanding about how “treats” or “rewards” can be effectively used as reinforcers. I asked my Facebook friends to help me out with some common believes that live in the equine world about treats in training. Thank you all for helping me. I will quote the answers:

  1. Hand-feeding creates mugging horses
  2. Hand feeding makes them bite.
  3. That it instantly makes them fat.
  4. Hand feeding horses is bad because it turns them into monsters, they get rude, pushy and bite everyone.
  5. That’s bribing and horses do X only for treats but not out of respect towards the person treating them!
  6. They get Treat Crazy, and will not be able to think or focus on what they are doing.
  7. It will make your horse aggressive pushy and mouthy.
  8. Hand-feeding makes them spoiled and they will refuse to eat out of a bucket and you will have to exchange it for a gilded bowl.
  9. It makes them nippy, aggressive, pushy, space invading.
  10. You can only hand-feed your horse twice.
  11. They’ll kill you if you forget your treat bag once upon a time in the future.
  12. It’s unnatural (as opposed to using carrot sticks and spurs and what not), since horses don’t feed one another in reward for tasks.
  13. It’s super dangerous, for when done incorrectly it turns them into raging killing machines that can never be re-educated.
  14.  Only hand-feed grain and hay but not treats because it will send the wrong message to the horse.

Let’s see how we can prevent these objections from happening.

Objection: Hand-feeding creates mugging, biting, space invading, dangerous horses

I will merge objections 1, 2 , 4, 7, 9 and 13. They all refer to the fear that the good relationship with your horse will end because of giving him treats.

There is a big difference between giving treats randomly and using treats as reinforcer to train behaviour.

Randomly dispensed treats can indeed cause frustration and confusion in the horse because it’s not clear why he got the treat.

When treats are (in the eyes of the horse!) randomly given, he will look for a way to increase the likelihood of getting treats. That is the principle used in positive reinforcement training.

If treats are given when mugging, biting, pushing, nippy, aggressive or space-invading behaviour just happened, that behaviour was reinforced!

Solution:

Be clear to your horse when to expect a treat and when not to expect a treat in training. You can give your horse clarity by using a bridge or marker signal.

With a marker signal (click) you now can easily train the opposite or an incompatible behaviour. It’s already clear he wants the treat, so now you use the treat to get desired and safe behaviour. I call that your Key to Success. This Key Lesson is called Table Manners for Horses. Your horse can’t bite you with a closed and relaxed muzzle, he can’t invade your space if he stands at a distance and he won’t mug you if he know to move his head away from your pocket with treats.

You can even give the horse more clarity by using a start-training-signal and an end-training-signal. Only during training treats can be earned. Be consequent!

 

Timing. Pay attention to when you give your horse treats. You get what you reinforce. So if your horse just sniffed your pocket and you think: ‘Hey lovely horse, you are right. I do have an apple in my pocket. What a smart horse, here you go.’ You just reinforced ‘sniffing your pocket’ and increased the likelihood of your horse mug you/invade your space again. Again: your marker (click) is a valuable tool to communicate.

Other objections of using treats in training

I will discuss the other 7 fears of using treats in another blog, so stay tuned. You can get my blog in your mailbox by signing up in the menu bar on the right.

If you want to use treats in training safe and effectively sign up for my course Ultimate Horse Training Formula. In this online course you will learn how to use positive reinforcement to train your horse, you will learn to avoid the most common pitfalls in horse training (in R+ as well as in traditional methods), you will learn to avoid and solve frustration of horse and human in training and get the results you’re aiming for.

 

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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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Tips to Train your Horse to behave Safe around Treats

The expression “Training with treats” is often immediate cause for a lively discussion between people who do and people who don’t use food reinforcers. Want to watch the video? Scroll to the bottom of this blog!

Reasons to Train with Treats

There are many reasons to train with treats. I only will state 3 here.

  1. Food is an amazing reinforcer! Horses want to work for it and sometimes they don’t even want to stop working (which can be listed with the cons).
  2. Keeps your hands free. You don’t need to hold the treat until you need it, like you do with a whip.
  3. Horses will raise the criteria for a behaviour by themselves in order to earn a treat.

Reasons NOT to Train with Treats

_mugging_hippologicHere are the 3 reasons I heard the most.

I will debunk them in the next paragraph.

  1. Horses get pushy or will start to bite you.
  2. Horses will start mugging you when you carry treats around.
  3. He will only work for the treat, not for you.

Debunking the myths

1. & 2. True, horses can turn into biters or will behave like you’re a vending machine if treats are ‘randomly’ (from the horse’s perspective!) offered during training.

Therefor you need to establish some rules. They are really simple to understand and every horse I worked with learned them within a few minutes:

Rule #1 All treats are announced by a marker signal (usually the click sound from a box clicker). No click, no treat.

Rule #2 The fastest way to treats is to move away from them. Simply teach the horse an incompatible behaviour with the undesired behaviour.

Biting and mugging are not possible if the horse is not in range. Teach him to move his head away from your body and/or the food source (your pocket). This sounds so easy, but pay attention to what most people do: they give the horse attention for the undesired behaviour and therefor reinforcing it. It is the receiver (horse) that determines if something is a reward or a punishment. If the behaviour gets stronger, it was reinforced.

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Rule #3 Treats must be taken with lips only. Teeth are not allowed to take (or grab) the treat.

Reason #3 ‘He will only work for the treat, not for you’. Weird enough people are not saying this when you work with aversives: “If you work with a whip he will only do it because you carry a whip or wearing spurs.”

By implementing rule #1 the horse learns to pay attention to the marker, the click and not the food. The food is not a lure, it is a reinforcer.

When you start to train a horse that is not used to paying attention to a marker signal he will pay a lot of attention to the food. True, in the very beginning (only the first few sessions) it is about the food. Once the 3 basic rules are implemented, the attention shifts from the food to the click, the challenge and or the interaction with the trainer.

Yes, the food reinforcer will still play an important rule in future training. Only not in the same exercise all the time. You will fade out the click & reinforcer.

Clicks and reinforcers will still be used to train new behaviours. We always want to improve and develop, don’t we? That is why food will always be a part of (positive reinforcement) training.

Even when we don’t carry food around the horse still wants to perform eagerly the tasks we cue him for. We made a positive association in the brain using food in the learning process.

Have you ever heard someone asking ‘When can I fade out the whip, the bit or my spurs?’

Tips to Teach Your Horse to behave Safe around Treats

  • Teach your horse the food always moves to the horse, never the other way around
  • The quickest way for your horse to earn a treat is to move away from it
  • Teach your horse to wait patiently until the food is delivered to his mouth, by offering the food (especially in the beginning) ASAP after the click
  • No click, no treat
  • Only lips are allowed to take the treat. Use (temporarily) bigger size treats if your horse uses his teeth to grab the treat and click&treat faster.

 

_give an appetitive HippoLogic

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect horse women with their inner wisdom and teach them the principles of learning and motivation, so they become confident and skilled to train their horse in a safe and effective way that is a lot of FUN for both human and horse. Win-win.

Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a gift) or visit HippoLogic’s website and discover my online courses that will change your life.

‘Help, my horse turned into a monster since I started clicker training’

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Sandra Poppema, BSc

Go-to person for online equine clicker training

Teaching horse people to make training a win-win and bond with their horse so they can enjoy their time together.

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What if your horse bites you?

What if your horse has a tendency to bite you? How can you solve this behaviour?

The first question that has to be answered is: ‘Why does a horse bite people?’ If you want to solve a problem behaviour start with finding the cause and work from there.

Possible causes

There are many reasons horses bite people. In some cases it is just play or asking attention. Stallions and geldings can play for hours the ‘I bite you, try to get me back’-game. The reaction to the behaviour is usually also the reinforcer. In my experience stallions don’t care about pain during this game, so punishment will have very slim chances to stop this behaviour.

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Horses can also bite because they feel a need to defend themselves and all the other body language that they displayed to warn you, has been ignored. The horse is not ‘whispering’ anymore but now he is ‘shouting’ in order to express himself. If horses are consequently punished for giving warning signs, they might decide one day to skip the warning signals and start attacking right away.

A horse can also start biting because he is in pain, for example a poorly fitting saddle or bridle. The horse starts to bite in reaction to the saddle during saddling, cinching or a mounting rider.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMaybe the horse is not biting but nibbling and that is mistaken for biting. Horses nibble out of curiosity, they nibble during mutual grooming or because they like to take objects into their mouths due to teething or being playful.

Biting also can become learned behaviour if the cause of the behaviour is long gone, but they still gain something by it. Horses that are stabled in a very busy environment and are being touched by people all the time without liking it can start biting out of agitation in order for people to let them alone. They can still bite people even if they have moved out of that situation, just because it became a habit.

Mugging behaviour can also turn into biting behaviour if it has been reinforced or if the horse gets frustrated because he doesn’t understand when to expect a food reward and when not to expect it. Some people stop feeding treats altogether, but I would suggest instead of avoiding the problem, solve it.

Sometimes we simply don’t know the cause but we still want to find a solution.

Solutions

The best solutions are tailored to the cause. If a horse is playful, it won’t help if we buy another saddle for him. If the horse is in pain, solve the pain and make adjustments to prevent more pain.

It isn’t always easy to know or make an educated guess about the cause of the problem. Ask for a professional opinion of a horse behaviour specialist or ethologist to help you find solutions that are tailored to the cause and not just solved by punishing or avoiding the behaviour all together.

Biting can be a very dangerous behaviour. Always take (an attempt) to bite you seriously, even if it is play. It still can be dangerous. I personally know three people who lost a (part of their) finger, two due to their own horse.

Sandra Poppema
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult!

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