Things to Consider Using Treats in (Clicker) Training Horses

There is much to consider when you’re getting more serious about positive reinforcement training and want to use treats. It’s not the occasional sugar cube I am talking about. Let’s see what’s important in clicker training your horse what you need to consider using treats in training.

Value of the reinforcer can change over time

Value of reinforcers can change, so I always keep that in mind. Kyra loves to work hard for hay cubes in Winter, but in Summer not so much.

In Spring and Summer I often use dandelion leaves or simply freshly plucked grass. Kyra has EMS so she isn’t fulltime in a pasture. That’s why a handful of juicy grass will always be high value for her in Spring and Summer.

Low sugar grass pellets (simple to use and cheap to buy in bulk, since it’s a ‘dinner grain’ type of feed) will do year round for Kyra. When the value ‘wears off’ and I will mix in a few sunflower seeds or different kind of dinner pellets I get from other people, to make the reinforcer more interesting and less predictable.

Home made treats: cheap, easy and sugar free

I also bake my own treats (find the DIY home made horse treats recipe here) and it’s easy and cheap in comparison to store bought treats. You can choose the flavour, too. Kyra loves it when I make them with lots of cinnamon or choose turmeric (both anti inflammatory). Most horses seem to really like those flavours.

People love the cinnamon ones and are fairly disappointed if I tell them no sugar is involved. 😉 The smell of these treats is so good!

Healthy vs Unhealthy

One thing to consider is the amount of reinforcers you use. If you would put all the treats you use in a day in a bucket, how much do you think that will be? The amount of all sessions added together.

If you use 10 reinforces per day and you choose apple pieces, that would be two apples or just one if you make the pieces really small. If you use 15-20 per session and train 3 sessions a day that will add up! Therefor ‘healthy’ is an important thing to consider.

When I just got Kyra, and she was untamed I fed handfuls of grass pellets in the beginning of her training. She was born in the wild and untouched when I got her. She didn’t eat anything she didn’t know: and wouldn’t eat carrots, apples, commercial treats because they are not found in the wild. She only wanted to eat hay and had learned to enjoy grass pellets.

How much reinforcers do you use?

In the beginning I had to big amounts of reinforcers! When I realized how much pellets I was actually using in just a 5 minute session, I was shocked. I calculated I used 1,5 to 2 scoops of pellets per training day. Full scoops! I fed handfuls per click, so it went really fast. Kyra was still very scared of me at the time and had hay available at all times, so I felt I didn’t have much choice. She choose her hay from the net over hay from my hand in the first few days.

This was a lot, for a yearling, so I reduced the amount I fed after a few days by making the sessions shorter and the breaks between sessions longer so I wouldn’t overfeed her.

She also had made great progress in accepting me nearby. Once I could feed smaller hands of pellets I could decrease the overall amount significantly.

Keep them guessing about which appetitive is coming

In order to keep the motivation of your horse high, it helps to keep them guessing what reinforcer will they be getting. Of course all appetitives you use are worthwhile (that is after all, the definition of an appetitive!). What I want to say is that the moment the appetitive becomes predictable, the learner can simply calculate if it’s worth the effort. While we may think it is, the learner may have another opinion.

alternating appetives



An easy way is to mix a few appetitives up so it will be random if you grab the hay cube, the grass pellet or that tiny piece of carrot out of your pocket. I’ve noticed I find it very hard to decide which one I give after I click. I don’t want to make a decision. So if you mix a few, each offering will taste slightly different: one may contain more grass pellets, the other a bit more sunflower seeds.

You can also reinforce with other appetitives than food and alternate. Think of touches, scratches, self reinforcing behaviour or secondary reinforcers.

Experiment!

Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit and see how your horse reacts: does he gets frustrated, offers more desired behaviour or better quality, does he stays engaged longer or shorter?

One day I asked Kyra to back up for a hay cube. The second time I bridged I offered sunflower seeds. She hadn’t had them in a long time! She offered 15 steps backing instead of 3 or 4, to let me know that she loved the sunflower seeds. Much more than the hay cubes, at that time. It might not be always this obvious. You pay attention, because they will tell you.

The next time you train: experiment. Offer your usual appetitive, then ask the same behaviour and offer something else. Do you notice a difference? If so, what did you notice? The more you experiment, the more you’ll see. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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