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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_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
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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Important values in the horse-human relationship: Trust

Personally I think trust is one of the most important values in a horse-human relationship. Without a foundation of trust you don’t have much to built a good relationship on.

It’s easier to love someone you trust, than someone you don’t. That ‘someone’ can be a human as well as an animal. If you trust someone, you can relax in his or her company and rely upon him/her to help keep you safe and not to hurt you.

We can’t learn when we are in fear and our flight-fight response is triggered. The same goes for horses.We learn best when we feel at ease and are relaxed. In other words; when we stay in learning mode.

Trust is not something you can buy (with treats), force (with pressure) or gain quickly. You have to build trust, over time, with your actions. Not with words.

we_trust_actions_hippologicYou want all your actions (handling, training, riding) to contribute to building trust, not to take away trust.

In Dutch we have a saying: ‘Trust comes by foot but leaves on a horse’ which means that trust is built slowly but can be destroyed quickly.

Take this question with you every time you spent time with your horse: Are my actions contributing to building trust or not? If you don’t know the answer, place yourself in his shoes. Observe your horse’s body language, mimic it and see what emotions get triggered. Are you relaxed or tense? Can you still breathe? Do you feel safe or not?

How do you build trust in your relationship and how do you measure it?

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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‘Help, my horse turned into a monster since I started clicker training’

Click here to find the blog (and don’t forget to subscribe on my website: https://clickertraining.ca/help-my-horse-turned-into-a-monster-since-i-started-clicker-training/

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Teaching horse people to make training a win-win and bond with their horse so they can enjoy their time together.

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Pitfalls of Positive Reinforcement

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?

Theory versus Practice

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…_clicker_hippologic_symbol

History of the Horse

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.

Solution

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.

Frustration

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.Emotions_in_training_hippologic2015

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.

Solutions

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.

Over-aroused

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.

Solutions

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.

__hippologic_beautiful_thing_about_learningPreventing pitfalls

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.

Sandra Poppema
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7 Keys to Success

When you are interested in trying clicker training one of the first questions is: what should I teach my horse? I suggest teaching a brand new behaviour which isn’t dangerous.

If you start experimenting with a new training method start with a simple lesson. There are 7 Key Lessons that are perfect building blocks to other behaviours. These are:

Key lesson: Head loweringSafe behaviour around food
Patience
Head lowering
Targeting
Backing
– Emotions in training
Mat training

Why Key Lessons?
Stephanie Kwok and I decided to call them Key Lessons because they are in a way your key to success in clicker training. Why? They are simple behaviours and a few of these already belong to your horses normal behaviour repertoire. Every horse can lower his head, back up or look away from the handler.

Easy to start with
These are good exercises for all new trainers to practise their basic mechanical skills like: present a target – click- take target out of sight- reach for a treat – feed it to the horse – start again. It will improve your timing and observational skills. You’ll get experience in making a training plan, setting criteria, increasing them and lowering them if necessary and to keep a training journal [click here-> 4 Easy Ways to Start a Training Journal <- to read more]. It is a good exercise to learn how to set your horse and yourself up for success and learn to think ‘out of the box’.

A fresh start
Another good reason to start with these are that your horse probably doesn’t have bad associations connected with some of these lessons. Your horse can make a fresh start with a wh1_movingtargetole new approach to learning. Reward-based training with clear communication rules: the bridge signal that give the horse the “yes you did this excellent and your reward is on its way”-signal, a “start-session”-signal and an “end-of-session”-signal that tells the horse “now it is time to earn lovely rewards” and “not mugging the handler is the fastest way to earn the goodies”. Once the horse gets these rules he will be eager to go to class with you!

Building blocks
All these key lessons are very good building blocks to more complex behaviours. For example, targeting can help you trailerload your horse, get your horse out of the pasture without you going through the mud, helps teaching your horse to accept a deworming syringe, helps you to teach your horse to jump at liberty, come when _targeting_hoof2his name is called, easily transfers to targeting other body parts like hooves (cleaning and trimming feet), shoulder/hip (lateral work), overcome fear for scary objects and so on.

Every key lesson is an excellent building block and therefor equally important. I wish I had known these when I started with clicker training. It would have made my journey a lot less ‘bumpy’. At least now I can teach them to my clients and let them enjoy the knowledge. I love it.

Here a video of the Key Lesson ‘targeting’ in real life:

Sandra Poppema
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