One of the key lessons I like to promote as a really good foundation to start with and to keep working on, is safe behaviour around food, ‘table manners for horses’ so to say.
Why is this one of the key lessons?
If you are working with horses you always want to be as safe as possible. You certainly don’t want to create problems, which can easily happen if you train with food as a reinforcer without having clear ‘rules’. Rules are alle about expectations:
- When can your horse expect a treat: only after a click
- When can’t he expect treats: no click,
no glory, no treat
- How he can earn clicks that lead to treats: paying attention to the cue and answer the question right
Your Key to Success in using food as reinforcer is to teach your horse safe hand-feeding or Key Lesson Table Manners.
People who, in the horses’ eyes, reward randomly with food will have horses that are always expecting the unexpected: a random treat. That leads to impatient horses: they want it now!
Therefor you have to start making clear your horse has to know he has to do something in order to get a reward. He also has to know what it is he did, that made him earn the treat. He has to learn to pay attention to your marker (the click). No click, no (food) reward.
What to do if your horse is mugging you? Using a marker makes it easier for your horse to understand that ‘mugging’ is never reinforced. There is no click, so no food will come his way.
Mugging is annoying for the handler and can trigger frustration in the horse. Especially if he sometimes gets rewarded for this behaviour (with attention, a pet or even food) while other sometimes he gets punished for it or ignored. It is this various ‘reward’schedule that strengthen this undesired behaviour even more. How to handle this?
You want to reinforce the opposite behaviour of mugging. A behaviour that is incompatible with pushing your arm or sniffing your pockets. This will make your training sessions more safe.
Table-Manners for Horses
- Teach your horse to move his head (read: mouth) away from you, your pocket with food or your ‘money belt’ full of goodies.
- Teach your horse to keep his lips closed
- Teach him to gently take the treat off of your hands
- Teach him an ‘End-of-Session’ signal that means: no more clicks, no more treats
Table manners around dinner time
If you want your horse to behave around feeding time, you have to communicate clearly what behaviour you expect from him:
- standing with four feet on the floor while the food cart is coming
- back up when the stall door is opened or when the hay is delivered and so on.
Use a marker signal to pinpoint the wanted behaviours. Read more here.
With ‘polite’ behaviour I mean safe behaviour. The horse must wait ‘politely’ until the food is delivered to his lips, after the marker. He shouldn’t move towards the treat, he has to learn that the treat will come to him. The horse must (learn to) take the treat carefully off of my hand and only use his lips and no teeth.
When I click and when I deliver the food, I pay close attention to the horses state of mind. Those two moments (click and the delivery of the treat) are the reinforcing moments, and I do want to reinforce safe behaviour, so I pay attention to the horses state of mind.
Present the food in a safe way to the horse and ‘prove’ to your horse that you are trustworthy. You will always deliver a food reward after a click and you will deliver it (bring it to his mouth so he won’t have to ‘search’ for it). If you drop it on the ground,simply give another one.
People who are easily scared by a horse that moves towards the treat in their hand and proceed to drop the food, need to work on their food presenting skills. You want the horse to trust you on where the food is presented (to their mouth) and that it will arrive. Be consistent and reliable in the way you present treats.
Before you click, always check if you still have at least one more treat to offer. It doesn’t have to be food, but if you’re working with food, make sure you have something left in your pocket to give.
The value of the reward, the size and the chewiness can all influence (un)desired behaviours around food. If the size of the treat is too small, it can easily fall on the floor and get lost, if it is too big it can be hard to eat quickly. Is the reward a high value treat, the horse get frustrated if it’s not delivered quickly enough. If the horse has to chew very long it can distract him from the training.
There are many aspects to take into consideration when you reinforce your horse with food. Please don’t let this long list scare you away from working with food rewards.
Food is such a powerful reinforcer that once your horse understands how you want him to behave around food and treats in training, you can have a lot of fun with it!
Links to other key lessons
- Horse, stay in training mode: equine emotions during training
- head lowering & backing
- mat training
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