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Treats, or food reinforcers, can be used in training very effectively. Three good reasons to use them are:
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!
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:
Let’s see how we can prevent these objections from happening.
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.
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.
PS Did you know HippoLogic has an accountability program?
Let me start by telling you that there are many ‘wrong’ ways and many right ways to rehabilitate a horse that has a halter or bridle trauma. Here is my story in which I share the wrong and the right strategy.
This is Punky. His problem was that no one, except the owner, could halter him.
You can see how that can be a daily stress for both horse and humans in a boarding facility, right?
The wrong way is to go straight to problem solving. That is what we humans like to do, it is natural to us and it has been reinforced all our lives that this is the way to do it.
That is exactly what I did…
I started the ‘wrong’ way, which was pretty much what most horse trainers would do.
When I was training Punky, I thought I could skip my own Key Lessons and ‘just teach the horse to be OK with a halter’.
I thought just teaching Punky to target the halter would be the one and only step to desensitize him. I envisioned that the next step could be the haltering. Easy-peasy.
It was a bit more complex than that and I learned how valuable the HippoLogic Key Lessons really are. For all trainers.
We can’t skip steps because it is the horse who determines how many steps are needed, not the trainer.
When I started out teaching Punky to target his halter, he became really excited about all the treats he was (in his mind!) ‘suddenly’ receiving.
I needed to teach him Key Lesson ‘Table Manners for Horses’ in order to keep my fingers safe and to teach him that a food reward only can be expected after the click.
He started to mug me more and more. Again, I had to lower my criteria about his learning curve. I realized that I should have taught him Key Lesson ‘Patience’ (move his head out of my space in order not to mug me) before I taught him anything else.
Then, when I thought I was ready to work on ‘desensitization of the halter’ I noticed that he wouldn’t even wanted to come near a halter. Every time I wanted to halter him he put his head up to prevent me from haltering him.
I decided to teach him Key Lesson ‘Targeting’ (nose and ears) so I could bring the halter near his body and ask him to touch the halter with his nose.
This wasn’t enough to halter him. Now he was OK with touching the halter with his nose and even putting his nose into the nose band, but he was still putting his head up and backing up when I wanted to pull the halter over his ears.
Therefor I needed to teach Punky Key Lesson ‘Head lowering’. Asking him to lower his head on cue turned out to be super helpful in giving Punky clarity about all I wanted from him:
In other words: I was lumping instead of splitting the goal behaviour. A pitfall all trainers need to beware of.
This was a valuable experience for me. Now I start all horses I train, teaching them my Key Lessons. No matter what I think they already can do or what I ‘think I can skip’. Building a solid foundation first, speeds up training instead of slowing it down!
Here is a video of haltering Punky, training day 4:
Here is a video of day 11, after I taught all the necessary Key Lessons:
How you can turn basic exercises as ‘Table Manners’ for Horses and ‘Patience’ into tools is discussed in part I. Read here part II where you can learn how to use Key Lessons Targeting and Mat training to train complex behaviours. Read part III to learn how you can use Key Lessons Head lowering and Backing for advanced training purposes.
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Sandra Poppema, BSc
Founder of HippoLogic
Enhancing Horse-Human connections through clicker training
Clicker training or positive reinforcement is based on a simple concept: adding something the learner wants (an ‘appetitive’) in order to strengthen a behaviour. What can possibly go wrong with a simpel concept of noticing (a tiny step towards) the desired behaviour – mark the behaviour (‘click’) and reinforce (strengthen) it by giving the learner something pleasurable?
Like every training method there is the theory which assumes the trainer, the target animal (learner) and the environment are perfect and then there is reality…
Not all horses are blank slates. It is very rare to come across a horse that hasn’t been handled by humans before he’s trained by an experienced positive reinforcement trainer.
In other words, almost every horse already has a history with humans and he has already made lots of associations with situations, humans, things et cetera. Both good and bad.
If the horse has negative associations with certain cues, tack or situations the trainer has to counter condition (make them ‘neutral’ or ‘positive’) them first.
In positive reinforcement an appetitive is added to strengthen a behaviour. When the horse doesn’t understand what he has to do in order to earn the treat or if the horse is too excited by the high value treat, he can become frustrated.
If the trainer is not noticing little signs of frustration in the horse and doesn’t respond adequately the learned behaviour can regress or the horses loses interest in the exercise. If the frustration builds up the horse can even become aggressive.
Make sure your horse understands when he can and when he can’t expect food rewards. Implement a ‘start session’-signal and an ‘end of session’-signal.
Lumping criteria (making your steps too big) or raising criteria too quickly can cause frustration. Split the goal behaviour into enough steps that you can reward.
If the treats are too distracting and causing frustration, use low(er) value treats and make sure the horse is not hungry during training. Provide a full hay net during training.
Some horses are very excited once they discover that (high value) treats or other very desirable rewards can be earned in training. Due to their excitement they can get aroused or even over-aroused. If not properly addressed the physical signs (like dropping the penis or erection) can be reinforced (unconsciously) in training.
Prevention works best but in order to prevent this you have to have a keen eye for body language and behaviour. (Over)arousal can be caused by frustration, see above.
In order to counter condition and/or prevent reinforcing physical signs of arousal, start marking and reinforcing before the arousal happens. In other words: split the behaviour, increase the rate of reinforcement and counter condition the behaviour.
Like in any other training method there are many mistakes a trainer can make. I think that is inherent to learning a skill.
Find an experienced teacher to guide you around the pitfalls. There are enough things to learn without falling into them.
First of all: a click means “Horse, you did the right thing” and that means that I, the trainer, have booked a success, too. And I am addicted to success. Before clicker training, I was always telling myself what I did wrong, instead of what I could improve. I would see my failures instead of my triumphs.
Second: I just love to feed animals. I don’t know why, but it is very enticing and rewarding for me. The more I click the more I am allowed to feed my horse.
I realized one day I was addicted to clicking my horse. It really felt like an addiction because it felt like a computer game with a victory tune to announce you have completed this level and you can go on to the next. Is it dangerous? Could it be detrimental to the training?
Once I realized that I clicked too much, I discovered that I was not getting the best results I could. What is “too much”? For me it meant: not raising criteria after 3 successful attempts, clicking for already established behaviours like coming to me in walk when called, nice transitions under saddle that Kyra already
would do with a success rate of 90% or more.
The key is to write down goals, make a training plan and keep a training journal in which you describe in positive words what you’ve accomplished in your training. I can recommend it to every one to find a support group/friend with whom you can share your successes and points to improve. Talking about your training with others can help you reflect and stay motivated.
With clicker training ‘Less can be more’. If you click less, the horse will answer with better tries. Sometimes you get amazing results, like I described in this post. For instance I don’t click Kyra for coming to me in walk. I’ve set her up for success so I could click her for coming to me in trot. The goal I am working on now is asking Kyra to come to me in canter.
Since I click less, Kyra is improving significantly in all behaviours and therefor the click has become even more addictive to me. It is as if I have moved up multiple levels in our game and a whole new world has opened.
I am definitely high on our success and craving more.
Ultimate Horse Training Formula, Your Key to Succes
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