One of the key lessons I like to promote as a really good foundation to start with or 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 and don’t have clear rules around when your horse can expect food and when not to expect it. And how he can earn it (wait for the cue and answer the question right). The key to success in using food as reinforcer is to teach your horse safe hand-feeding.
Some ground rules
People who, in the horses’ eyes, reward randomly with food will have horses that are always expecting the unexpected: a random treat.
First of all the horse has to know he has to do something in order to get a reward and he has to know what it is he did, that made him earn the food. 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), sometimes he gets punished for it and other times ignored.
You want to reinforce the opposite behaviour of mugging, to make your training safer: moving his head (read: mouth) away from you, your pocket with food or your fanny pack with goodies.
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 are the most reinforcing moments, and I do want to reinforce safe behaviour, so I pay attention to the horses state of mind.
The trainer must present the food in a safe way to the horse and he must prove to the horse that he is trustworthy. People who are easily scared by a horse that moves towards them and 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 food.
The trainer must always check that he has a reinforcer at hand before he uses his marker signal. 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 wanted 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 very desired treat, with a high value for the horse it can increase frustration if it is 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.
Links to other key lessons
Thank you for reading. Let me know how what your favourite key lesson is and why.
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