Prevent Your Horse from Becoming ‘Treat Crazy’ With this Simple Solution

I like to call all horse people who use treats as reinforcers in training (to get behaviour) horse trainers. They are deliberately influencing their horses’ behaviour. I love that!

When they talk about using treats in training often lots of objections are raised. In this series I give solutions for these common objections and beliefs.

Common beliefs

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.

solutions for treat crazy mugging horse with clicker trainingLet’s see how we can prevent these objections from happening.
In this blog I gave solutions for objections 1, 2, 4, 7, 9 and 13. In my this blog I tackled objection #3.

Today I will share with you how I handle ‘Treat Crazy Horses’. I love that expression! I think it’s expressing exactly how eager that horse is! You can use that into your advantage in training!

Solutions for Horses that became ‘Treat Crazy’

How to deal with a horse that is treat crazy is really simple in fact. It is often not only the high value of the treat that causes frustration in the horse, it’s also the lack of clarity that makes horses behave this way. Part of the solution is to change to lower value reinforcers.

If you can give your treat crazy horse clarity when to expect a treat and when he can’t, he will become way calmer around food and food reinforcers. That is the other part of the solution: clarity.

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The way you teach him is by using a ‘bridge signal’ or ‘marker signal’ in your training. You can use a specific word you never use for something else or a specific sound like a click from a box clicker.

 

Stop feeding (from your horses’ perspective) ‘random treats’. 

When you start using a marker signal, that marks the exact behaviour your horse got the reward for, the reward will turn into a reinforcer. It will strengthen the clicked behaviour. This is how positive reinforcement trainers use treats to train behaviours.

Horses are smart and they figure out quickly to ‘get you to click and reinforce’ them! When they start to offer the new behaviour consistently it is time for your next step in training. Teaching your horse to pay attention to the click is only the first step. In the Ultimate Horse Training Formula I explain how you start green horses with clicker training and how to avoid pitfalls.

This is how you can turn a Treat Crazy horse into a horse that loves your training!

training with treats_clarity_hippologic clickertraining

If you want give your horse even more clarity start using a start session-signal and most importantly: an end session-signal. That is a simple way to teach your horse now your lesson starts and you can expect to earn treats. With your end of session/end of training-signal you tell your horse ‘Sorry, no more treats to be earned. Lesson is over.

The third piece of advice is to teach your horse the HippoLogic Key Lesson Table Manners for Horses (safe hand-feeding) with clicker training. This is the Key to Your Success to train with food reinforcers. This and more is covered in the complete home-study program Ultimate Horse Training Formula.

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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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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!
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a gift) or visit HippoLogic’s website and join my online course Ultimate Horse Training Formula in which you learn the Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in Clicker Training.
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‘Help, my horse turned into a monster since I started clicker training’

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7 Tips for Clicker Trainers

In clicker training you use the clicker to teach new behaviours and every once in a while to confirm established behaviours.

  1. Let your click always be followed by a reward, even if your timing was wrong. That’s ‘part of the deal’.
  2. The receiver, the horse, determines the reward. Not the trainer. We can reward our horses with money or slaps/pats on their necks, but if we want to make clicker training ‘work’ we have to figure out what really motivates our horses._Hippologic_rewardbased training_receiver_determines
  3. Keep training sessions short if you are teaching a new behaviour. I often use a kitchen timer to make sure my sessions are only 5 – 10 minutes, depending of the horse and the circumstances. Or I put a certain amount of treats (about 10 -12) in my pocket. This has taught me to check my treat supply often, and if I’m running out of treats I know it is time for a break. It prevents a click with no treat to follow up.
  4. Give your horse an “end-of-session”-signal so you can give him a break and you can get a refill. These tips help you not to over-train your horse. You can do multiple sessions in one training. Make sure you give your horse a break in between sessions. Sometimes allowing a roll or some grazing in between is a break. Or just getting on the other side of the fence will give your horse a break. Start your session with a “start-session”-signal, like clapping your hands or giving a verbal cue.
  5. Start teaching your horse the Key Lessons. It will give you and your horse the perfect building blocks for all kinds of other behaviours. It will teach the trainer timing and creates opportunities to practice basic mechanical skills like: cue- wait for behaviour – click- take a treat- present treat to horse- cue again, practice working with a training plan and logbook and train your observational skills.
  6. Train with the end goal in mind, then divide that behaviour into as many building blocks as you can think of. Write them down.level4
  7. Keep a training journal to keep track of your successes and of your points to improve.

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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.
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Clicker training 101: Introducing and using cues

Positive reinforcement training is all about giving a reward to reinforce the behaviour you want more of. The key word is giving. If you have never used a bridge signal before, you start with the simple act of giving. In return you will get your horses’ attention. Then ‘training’ can begin.

Introducing a bridge signal (click)

When you introduce the clicker or another bridge signal to your horse, you start with just clicking and giving rewards. No strings attached. After 30 – 50 repetitions (often sooner) of click = reward, the horse will try to figure out what made you give the treat and if he can influence this by his behaviour. In other words: he will start trying different behaviours in order earn a treat. He is ‘asking’ you what you want from him!

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Target stick

You will notice that it is very easy to teach your horse new behaviours and within a few clicks he is offering you his new trick more and more consistently.

Let’s take targeting as an example. You want to teach your horse to touch the target stick with his nose on cue. You start with presenting the target stick (a stick with a ball attached on the end) to your horse.

Criteria

In the beginning your criteria are low: it doesn’t matter where he touches the target stick as long as he touches it. If you want to set it up for success, you make the desired behaviour  (touching the target stick near the target & touching the target itself) much easier than the less desired behaviour (touching the stick near your hand or touching your hand). So that’s why you start by working with a barrier in the beginning.

Introducing a cue

Once your horse is offering the desired behaviour consistently you can add a cue. In this example: your horse is touching the target predictably and he knows that touching the stick isn’t getting him rewards.

You might have worked with a training cue , e.g. presenting the target stick to your horse is a cue in itself. The horse might have associated specific conditions and consider them as cues we are not even aware of. Maybe you are always in the same place (stall, with a barrier) or at the same time of day when you were working with the target stick.

Temporary (training) cue

Sometimes this temporary cue (presenting the target) is not a very useful cue in other circumstances and then it its time to introduce an ‘official cue’. You don’t want your horse to touch the target stick all the time… It would be rather annoying if he puts his nose to the target whenever he sees the stick. Your horse can become very frustrated if you click offered behaviour sometimes, but would click it every time. That’s why you need a cue. The cue means ‘you can start earning rewards now’.

Changing cues: from temporary cue to final cue

_targetstick

So if your horse is offering to touch the target consistently it is time to introduce an ‘official (final) cue’ e.g. the verbal cue ‘Touch’. You start by using the new cue before the ‘training (temporary) cue’.

New cue -> old cue -> behaviour.

Horses will quickly anticipate this and when he starts acting on the official cue you capture his behaviour with a click.

After some repetitions where you can click & reward after the behaviour occurred after you have given the new cue you can raise your criterion.

Be consistent

Now you only click & reinforce when you have given your final cue for the behaviour. If your horse acts on the temporary cue or offers the behaviour spontaneously you don’t reinforce it. This is the final step in training a behaviour.

You might notice, because you changed the criteria and he doesn’t get reinforced so easily, that your horse will try harder to make you click & reinforce. You might see a duration in touching the target or something else you want to reinforce.

It is important to be consequent: final cue + behaviour= click and reinforce, spontaneously offered behaviour does’t lead to a click anymore in this stage of training.

If he tries really hard and you see improvement in the behaviour take advantage and simply give your horse a chance to earn a click by offering the new cue to him. He will learn to pay more attention and figure out quickly when he can and when he can’t expect a reinforcer.

You don’t want to frustrate your horse in training. One way is to offer another behaviour that is already on cue and alternate 2 behaviours so that you give your horse a chance to be successful.

Final step of training a behaviour

The final step in the process of teaching a behaviour is to use the new cue in different circumstances. If your horse performs well in different situations, he has generalized the cue. Well done!

Context shift

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Changing context: now Leon holds the target and gives the cue Touch while I handle the clicker.

A horse learns a certain behaviour in a certain context. Therefor it’s best to start training new exercises always in the same spot, for instance the round pen where you have the advantage of working with protective contact (a barrier).

If you want to test your new cue you have to shift one or more of the conditions (the context) your horse was learning a specific behaviour in. Now you ask to touch the target without a barrier between you two, or you ask it in the outdoor arena instead of the round pen or at a different time of day and so on.

This will ask the horse to adjust and generalize and ignore certain ‘cues’ in the context and pay more attention to others, your new cue. Sometimes a horse seems to lose all his skills in a new context because the cues he had paid attention to are not there anymore. Always lower your criteria temporarily if you change the context of learning, so your horse will gets his confidence back quickly.

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Join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy for personal advice and support in training your horse with positive reinforcement. The first 20 founding members get an additional 60-minute coaching session with me for free (value $ 97).

Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Horse training for women who love their horse

 

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