Treats, or food reinforcers, can be used in training very effectively. Three good reasons to use them are:
- Train 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
Feeding 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.
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:
- Hand-feeding creates mugging horses
- Hand feeding makes them bite.
- That it instantly makes them fat.
- Hand feeding horses is bad because it turns them into monsters, they get rude, pushy and bite everyone.
- That’s bribing and horses do X only for treats but not out of respect towards the person treating them!
- They get Treat Crazy, and will not be able to think or focus on what they are doing.
- It will make your horse aggressive pushy and mouthy.
- 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.
- It makes them nippy, aggressive, pushy, space invading.
- You can only hand-feed your horse twice.
- They’ll kill you if you forget your treat bag once upon a time in the future.
- 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.
- It’s super dangerous, for when done incorrectly it turns them into raging killing machines that can never be re-educated.
- 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!
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.
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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