The expression “Training with treats” is often immediate cause for a lively discussion between people who do and people who don’t use food reinforcers. Want to watch the video? Scroll to the bottom of this blog!
Reasons to Train with Treats
There are many reasons to train with treats. I only will state 3 here.
- Food is an amazing reinforcer! Horses want to work for it and sometimes they don’t even want to stop working (which can be listed with the cons).
- Keeps your hands free. You don’t need to hold the treat until you need it, like you do with a whip.
- Horses will raise the criteria for a behaviour by themselves in order to earn a treat.
Reasons NOT to Train with Treats
Here are the 3 reasons I heard the most.
I will debunk them in the next paragraph.
- Horses get pushy or will start to bite you.
- Horses will start mugging you when you carry treats around.
- He will only work for the treat, not for you.
Debunking the myths
1. & 2. True, horses can turn into biters or will behave like you’re a vending machine if treats are ‘randomly’ (from the horse’s perspective!) offered during training.
Therefor you need to establish some rules. They are really simple to understand and every horse I worked with learned them within a few minutes:
Rule #1 All treats are announced by a marker signal (usually the click sound from a box clicker). No click, no treat.
Rule #2 The fastest way to treats is to move away from them. Simply teach the horse an incompatible behaviour with the undesired behaviour.
Biting and mugging are not possible if the horse is not in range. Teach him to move his head away from your body and/or the food source (your pocket). This sounds so easy, but pay attention to what most people do: they give the horse attention for the undesired behaviour and therefor reinforcing it. It is the receiver (horse) that determines if something is a reward or a punishment. If the behaviour gets stronger, it was reinforced.
Rule #3 Treats must be taken with lips only. Teeth are not allowed to take (or grab) the treat.
Reason #3 ‘He will only work for the treat, not for you’. Weird enough people are not saying this when you work with aversives: “If you work with a whip he will only do it because you carry a whip or wearing spurs.”
By implementing rule #1 the horse learns to pay attention to the marker, the click and not the food. The food is not a lure, it is a reinforcer.
When you start to train a horse that is not used to paying attention to a marker signal he will pay a lot of attention to the food. True, in the very beginning (only the first few sessions) it is about the food. Once the 3 basic rules are implemented, the attention shifts from the food to the click, the challenge and or the interaction with the trainer.
Yes, the food reinforcer will still play an important rule in future training. Only not in the same exercise all the time. You will fade out the click & reinforcer.
Clicks and reinforcers will still be used to train new behaviours. We always want to improve and develop, don’t we? That is why food will always be a part of (positive reinforcement) training.
Even when we don’t carry food around the horse still wants to perform eagerly the tasks we cue him for. We made a positive association in the brain using food in the learning process.
Have you ever heard someone asking ‘When can I fade out the whip, the bit or my spurs?’
Tips to Teach Your Horse to behave Safe around Treats
- Teach your horse the food always moves to the horse, never the other way around
- The quickest way for your horse to earn a treat is to move away from it
- Teach your horse to wait patiently until the food is delivered to his mouth, by offering the food (especially in the beginning) ASAP after the click
- No click, no treat
- Only lips are allowed to take the treat. Use (temporarily) bigger size treats if your horse uses his teeth to grab the treat and click&treat faster.
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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.