When you are new to the idea of clicker training your horse you might ask yourself: How do I start? What do I need? Where do I buy these things? How do I teach my horse to respond to the clicker? These and more questions are answered in this blog to help you get started. (more…)
Posts tagged ‘training with treats’
I mean reinforcer. Not ‘reward’. It just sounded better. 😉 There is a big difference, let’s take a look at the definitions:
A thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.
“the holiday was a reward for 40 years’ service with the company”
Synonyms: Recompense, prize, award, honor, decoration, bonus, premium, bounty, present, gift,
Recompense, pay, remunerate, make something worth someone’s while;
A stimulus (such as a appetitive or the removal of an aversive) that increases the probability of a desired response in operant conditioning by being applied or effected following the desired response.
The purpose of a reward is a gift (end of story), the purpose of a reinforcer is to stimulate behaviour! Big difference.
Determine a Reinforcer
First you need to know that it’s the receiver (horse) that determines the reinforcer, not the trainer!
Your horse will tell you if something was reinforcing.
There are only 3 possibilities:
- You get more behaviour: the appetitive or aversive was indeed reinforcing
- You see no difference in desired response:the trainer did not give an appetitive or aversive stimulus but a neutral stimulus
- You get less of the desired behaviour, your reinforcer was not a reinforcer but a punishment for the learner. The behaviour decreased.
Low value or high value reinforcers
Low value reinforcers will still increase desired behaviour (they are not neutral) but they don’t over excite or over arouse your horse. Your horse stays interested in your training and keeps paying attention to you.
High value reinforcers can help your horse to increase his own criteria of a certain behaviour because the value of the treat excites him.
The downside is that high value reinforcers can cause over excitement and/or overarousal. You want to avoid that because it will distract the animal from the behaviour you want him to offer.
Choosing the Right Value
In general you want to use the lowest value reinforcer possible, that still get you the desired behaviour. It’s still worth it for the horse.
Low value reinforcers will help keep your horse in ‘learning mode‘ and pay attention to the behaviour, not the food.
You can alternate low value reinforcers with higher value reinforcers or you can mix them to up the value and keep it interesting.
High value reinforcers can be well used when your horse is nervous, in pain or if something else (a distraction) is also highly reinforcing.
A better ‘pay’ can help him decide to offer the desired behaviour despite of his emotions or other attractive motivators that going on.
It can help your horse to choose to perform better if he knows a high value reinforcer will or might come his way.
Tips to Measure the Value
When your horse grabs the treat off of your hand, bites, moves his head very fast towards the hand that offers the treat or eats the treat very fast, the reinforcer is of high value. Other signs can be over excitement or arousal and concentrating on the food instead of the cues of the trainer.
When your horse sniffs the treat first or slowly eats it, it can be an indicator of a low value reinforcer. If your horse starts to refuse the treat during training it has lost it’s value and you need to stop the training session or switch to a higher value reinforcer.
If the quality of the desired behaviour will not increase (your horse doesn’t try other behaviours/increase criteria) your reinforcers aren’t high enough value.
When your horse stays engaged in your training, keep offering new behaviours and doesn’t show frustration or overarousal/overexcitement the balance of high/low value reinforcers is perfect. That might change over time or when your clicks get too predictable.
Behaviour is not static!
What are some low and high value reinforcers for your horse? How can you tell? Please share your stories in the comments and inspire us!
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the relationship with their horse they really, really want and I teach them how they can get the results in training they dream of in a win-win way for horse and human.
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Who hasn’t heard the statement that ‘if you train with treats (like in positive reinforcement), your horse doesn’t respect you, he will do it only for the food and not for you’. This is an interesting myth to debunk because there is so much to it.
‘Training with treats’
Not everyone who ‘trains with treats’ is using a marker or bridge signal (a click) or understands the importance of the timing of the food delivery.
The click indicates two things: it pinpoints the exact desired behaviour and it announces an appetitive.
If a trainer is not using a bridge/marker signal when rewarding the horse with food it can lead to confusion (Why did I get this? Was it random? Can I influence it?) and even frustration in the horse (Why is there no food today? I expect food now). This can cause the horse to become very focused on the food, instead of the marker and the desired behaviour to display. This can cause all kinds of undesired or even dangerous behaviours.
When a horse doesn’t understand that he must pay attention to the marker and the associated behaviour in order to increase the likelihood of a click, he can display behaviours that he thinks influences the appearance of a food reward. Often that’s behaviour that occurred during or just happened a few seconds before the food was offered: sniffing the pockets of the trainer, stepping towards the handler (the food) or other -in our eyes- undesired or ‘disrespectful’ behaviour. This is caused by miscommunication or lack of knowledge or experience of the trainer and not ‘just a result of working with food rewards’.
What is ‘respect’?
This leads us to the next question: what is respect and can a horse display respect to another species? Or is what we call ‘respectful’ behaviour just something else?
Simple Definition of respect
a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.
a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way
a particular way of thinking about or looking at something
I think we should scrap the word ‘respect’ out of our vocabulary when we talk about the horse-human relationship. We, humans, can still respect the horse, but we have no way of knowing if ‘the horse feels admiration’ for us when he looks at us.
What behaviours do we expect when we are talking about the horse must’ respect’ us? We all know we can’t force respect, but why do so many trainers behave like they can?
Here are some ‘respectful’ behaviours:
- the horse doesn’t step into our personal cirkel, unless invited
- the horse respectfully follows all our cues
- takes treats carefully/respectful from our hands (doesn’t grab the food)
- waits ‘politely’ until the food is offered (doesn’t mug us)
- stands when mounted or groomed
- et cetera
I think these behaviours can all be taught and are often more the result of training or a learning process in the horse than ‘a feeling or understanding [from the horse] that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way’.
If the horse is not behaving ‘respectful’ that is also the result of the learning curve in the horse. He simply has learned that stepping into your ‘personal circle’ or sniffing your pockets results in something he values (a scratching pole, getting attention, a pet or a treat).
The horse only works for the food, not for you
In the next episode of Myth Monday I will debunk the part of the myth that in clicker training it is only the food that motivates the horse. Stay tuned!
What myths about clicker training/ positive reinforcement have you heard?
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All positive reinforcement trainers have heard people say:’Training horses with food rewards makes them pushy’. Some people even state ‘dangerous’ instead of pushy. Maybe you have said it yourself before you started using positive reinforcement (+R) to train your horse.
You get what you reinforce
In +R training you use a reward that reinforces the behaviour you want to train. The trainer uses a marker signal to mark the desired behaviour in order to communicate to the horse which behaviour he wants to see more of. Key is the marker signal.
What is mugging?
Mugging or other undesired behaviour around food or treats is just learned behaviour. If you understand how learning works, you see that mugging is caused (reinforced) by the trainer. Even if it wasn’t a professional trainer, but just a mom who wanted to give her daughters pony a carrot just because …. If the pony was sniffing her pocket or maybe just gave mom a little push with his nose and mom thinks:’Oh I forgot I had a treat in my pocket. Here you are, sweet pony. You are so smart.’
If someone has rewarded a horse for sniffing his pockets, this behaviour was encouraged. Therefor the horse will repeat this behaviour. It leaded to a reward. The same goes for a horse that is pushing you around in order to get to the food. If he gets rewarded for pushing you around, you have ‘trained’ him to do so. Even if it was unconscious, for the horse it was not. He was the one that paid attention (Read more in my post What to do if your horse is mugging you.)
Teaching ‘polite behaviour’ around food
The same way you can encourage (read: train) a horse to mug or behave pushy, you can encourage him to behave ‘politely’ around food and treats. I put polite between quotation marks because it is not per definition an equine behaviour. It is a trained behaviour. Polite behaviour is one of my key lessons (the keys to success in +R training).
Just like children have to learn not to speak with food in their mouth and other polite behaviours, so must horses learn what behaviours we want to see and consider polite (and save). It’s the trainers task to spent time on these.
Mugging is a trainers’ fault
Since mugging is a learned behaviour one can re-train it by reinforcing the opposite behaviour more and ignoring the mugging. Horses are smart and they will learn quickly what behaviours will lead to rewards and what behaviours will not.
If the trainer understands the learning theory and the equine mind, mugging is easily prevented or changed.
Train desired behaviour instead
Just think about what the opposite behaviours of mugging look like and start reinforcing those.
- The horse looks straight forward or slightly away when you reach into your pocket, instead of moving his nose towards your pocket.
- The horse backs up a step when you are about to hand-feed him, instead of coming towards you to get the food.
- The horse takes the treat gently off of your hand and uses his lips only, instead of taking it with his teeth.
- The horse stays out of your personal space instead of pushing you with his nose.
- And so on.
So, when people state that using food rewards causes mugging, pushy, dangerous or other unwanted behaviour in horses I know they just don’t understand how learning occurs. That’s OK. They can learn, we just have to reinforce the desired behaviour (or thoughts).
Related post The Dangers of working with Food (rewards).
If you think this is a blog that someone can benefit from, please use one of the share buttons below. Or post your comment, I read them all! Or just hit the like button if you appreciated this blog. Thank you!
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.
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and it comes with a reinforcer) or visit HippoLogic’s website and discover what else I have to offer.
————————————————————————–Therese Keels commented on Facebook : “It does cause pushy horses! They push you to think faster, use your imagination more. They push you to observe more closely, to pay attention and be present. They push us to be kinder, more considerate and understanding. They push us to be better at being us. Take that kind of pushy any day. :-)”
Thank you, Therese for this wonderful comment! Love it!
The most important thing about the treats I use is that it has to have enough value to my horse to reinforce the desired behaviour. After all it is the receiver that determines the reward, not the trainer: I want the behaviour, my horse wants the treat. Let’s make it a win-win.
Treats can differ in ‘value’ for the horse, depending on circumstances. Not only the value matters when you use treats in training. There is more to consider when you choose treats for training.
When you introduce the click or another bridge signal to your horse a small treat that can be eaten quickly is a good choice. If the horse isn’t very interested in the treat, try a higher value treat.
If your horse has trouble ‘finding’ the treat on your hand and or gets nervous about missing out, try a bigger size treat. One that he can see easily see and take off your hand.
The trainer can carry more treats if they are smaller. More treats means less refills. This can be handy on a long trail ride or during training sessions where the trainer doesn’t want to leave the horse (vet treatment, farrier).
A food reward shouldn’t take long to eat. If the horse has to chew too long it distracts from training.
If the treats are very small, like pellets, it can take a while before the horse eats everything. The last few pellets might be too small to eat safely. Consider just dropping them on the ground.
There are low value treats and high value treats. It is always the horse who determines if something is high or low value to him. Low value treats can be normal dinner grain or hay cubes, high value treats are special treats that are extra tasty, like carrots.
Work with treats that are as low value as possible, but still reinforces the desired behaviour.
Use high value treats for special occasions. For example if the horse has to do something difficult, painful (like a vet treatment) or scary.
High value treats also make excellent jackpots.
If your horse gets greedy or displays dangerous or undesired behaviour like biting or mugging, try lower value treats.
For horses that are overweight, have a tendency to get overweight or founder easily low calorie treats are a healthy choice.
Deduct the amount of calories offered during training from your horses normal feeds.
Vitamin pellets are often a healthy choice, check the label. Most ones have a decent size, they are non sticky and are low in sugar and calories.
Practical things matter
Not all trainers like to have sticky treats like apple pieces or sugar covered cereal in their pocket.
My horse Kyra likes soaked beetpulp, but I don’t like to carry it around. Sometimes I bring it to the arena in a plastic container which I put on the ground. Not very practical during riding, but perfect as jackpot in groundwork or during trick training.
Some treats, like sour apples, can increase the amount of saliva in your horse’s mouth or can cause foaming saliva. Which can become messy. It can also increase behaviour like licking your hands. If you don’t like that, try avoid these treats.
If you bridge and reinforce a lot, cost can become an issue. Commercial horse treats are very expensive per treat in comparison to home made treats, dinner grain or hay cubes.
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect you with your inner wisdom (you know what’s right) and teach you the principles of learning and motivation, so you become confident and knowledgeable to train your horse in a safe, effective and FUN way. Win-win.
All HippoLogic’s programs are focused on building your confidence and provide you with a step-by-step formula to train horses with 100% positive reinforcement.
Sign up for HippoLogic’s newsletter (it’s free and you will get a gift right away) or visit HippoLogic’s website.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Treat.”
Related ‘treat’ posts:
Have fun trick or treating tomorrow!