Things to Consider Using Treats in (Clicker) Training Horses

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.
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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

Is your horse mugging you?

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.
Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

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‘Rules’ vs ‘Principles’ in Horse Training (this might be eye-opening!)

When people learn to interact with horses it usually starts with riding lessons or they learn from a seasoned horse person. You’ll learn the ropes, which usually means the ‘rules’ of how things are done. Then one day, you discover that the rule doesn’t apply anymore… Why is that?

Why Rules Not Always Apply

Over the years you already might have learned some rules don’t work for you or the horses you work with. Why is that?

Why rules in horse training not always work

Because when you’re focused on the rule, you miss the principle behind the rule. That’s why it’s not working. Learn the Principle and you discover the Gold!

It’s like Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day (rule), if you teach him how to fish (principle) he’ll never be hungry.

What’s the Principle behind the Rule?

That’s what I’ve been working on the past 3 decades and that’s why I can lead others to success in horse training. I don’t work with rules, I teach clients principles. They are way more worth, because it sets them up for life!

Examples of Rules that Not Always Work

These are rules that apply to some or maybe even most horses, not to all horses!

1. Horses will work for carrots.

My horse Kyra was born in a nature reserve and foals learn to eat what moms and other herd members eat. In nature horses don’t feed on carrots because they don’t grow in their habitat! Kyra literally had to learn to eat carrots, apples and man-made treats. Foals who are born at a barn have already learned that what people feed you is edible.

So what would be a principle behind this rule? The principle is that the receiver determines the reward (read: appetitive).

Some horses like to work for carrots, others prefer grain, grass pellets or something else. As trainer you have to figure out what motivates your horse.

You know that not all horses can’t be lured out of the pasture with a carrot. The carrot is simply not appetitive enough in those cases. More principles could be at work why the horse won’t come and how to determine that, is a whole other topic.

Still people are asking on the Internet: ‘What treats are best for in clicker training?’ The answer is… it depends on the horse and the situation. Appetitives can change in value.

If clicker training doesn’t work, it’s because people don’t apply the Key principles of Learning and Motivation, they try to apply ‘rules’ ~ HippoLogic

The rule people hear is:

2. “Pressure-release will make the horse do what I want”.

Look at people that have trouble loading their horse into a trailer. They apply pressure, they apply release and still the horse is outside the trailer.

In training it’s about the timing (learning happens when the aversive stimulus is released) and also about the strength and direction of the aversive (if the trailer is more aversive than the applied pressure, the horse won’t go in) or if an appetitive stimulus outside the trailer is stronger than the applied pressure the horse won’t go in. It’s about how the learner experience the aversive stimulus.

When I started to figure out the principles at work behind every rule in horse training things changed quickly. My clients got better results and problems were solved quicker and with less struggle.

3. Heels down, hands low, back straight, chin up!

This is what I was taught in riding lessons for many, many years. It didn’t make me a good rider at all. These are rules, the principle behind it (that they never taught me in the riding school), is to sit in balance.

When I took Centered Riding lessons I learned how to sit in balance. I learned that balance starts at the position of my pelvis: tipping it slightly forward it created a hollow back, legs that went backwards, heels went up and hands that were moving very much in order to keep my balance.

When I had my pelvis slightly tipped backwards, I rode with a curved back, my legs were in chair seat (before my point of gravity) and my chin was down.

Only if I kept my pelvis in ‘neutral’ (this is where your balance starts!) I was able to keep my legs in the right position, my back straight and could move with my horse instead of being before or behind my horse’s movement.

Only when I keep my pelvis in ‘neutral’ I can move with my horse. I am balanced, my hands can become soft because I move them in the rhythm of the movement of my horse’s head instead of my own body. My legs become still (in relation to the horse flank movements) because I don’t need to squeeze them in order to keep my balance. I became confident because I felt safe! That’s when I became a good rider.

Now you can see why these rules started: heads up, back straight and so on. They want to solve the symptoms of an unbalanced rider. Unfortunately they don’t work (how many times have you heard them!?) because they don’t solve the problem (balance). The principle of riding does: where does balance in a rider start? Right, in the pelvis! And that’s why it’s called ‘centered’ riding.

Want to Learn More About the Key Principles of Positive Reinforcement?

I you want to know more about the Principles (HippoLogic’s Key Lessons), join me for a free webinar in which I explain the 4 Main Reasons People get Stuck in Clicker Training (and solutions).
Spoiler alert: I will talk about principles!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
Get your free 5 Step Clicker Training Plan.

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