Study Guide
YouTube Fun
Clicker Training
Article: Using Food


This article is taken from Chapter 1
of the book,
Natural Horsemanship Study Guide
which is
it has some cross references.

      Using Food for
Motivation and Reward

The range of opinions on using food is extremely interesting.  There are people who never use treats or allow their horses to graze or nibble when they are riding.  There are some horses who are too afraid to eat in the company of their person.  

Clicker training, on the other hand, feeds a treat with every click until the horse understands the request and has learned a signal cue and responds to it consistently.  At that point, when the horse has the new thing firmly in its repertoire, the click/treat is phased out and used to teach something new.   

I should here add a few things about clicker training that are often not understood by people who have not studied it and used it.  The first thing you teach when starting clicker training is that mugging gets you nothing.  The second thing you teach is that all treats are taken politely by the horse from your outstretched hand in the position that you chose.  The treats become like the horse’s ‘wages’.  It is like paying for piecework. 

As the horse gets to understand the click/treat dynamic, you start to withhold the click to get a slightly longer wait or a few more good strides or picking up a cone rather than just sniffing it, or getting three feet on the pedestal rather than just two.  In this manner, you build the behaviour by tiny increments until it is where you ultimately want it.  There are some great clips on You Tube if your interest is piqued. 

What is the horse’s opinion about food?  It pays to remember that horses evolved in the American and Asian steppes (prairies).  Like feral horses nowadays, their main aim in life, besides avoiding predators, was to find enough calories to stay alive.  The only easy time was probably during the spring growth season.  Summer drought and winter snow would have made existence marginal.  So, food is tops on their list of priorities, especially the high calorie foods we often use for treats.  Mare’s milk is sweet, so horses also have a natural sweet tooth.  

Many horses absolutely light up when food is brought into the learning equation.  It will never be as important as safety, but for a horse that feels safe and is relaxed (i.e., not having an adrenalin rush and needing to release excess energy), food is usually number one.  

Some people use a treat as a reward when the horse comes to them in the paddock or after it has co-operated with haltering.  It is a powerful reinforcer.  Treats can be a pre-date offering (bringing wine to dinner) or a post-date thanks (sending a ‘thank-you’ box of chocolates).   Some people just like to go say hello to their horses taking them a treat as a friendly gesture, then going away again.  

Some people add a treat to their ‘pressure off’ body language when the horse has done something especially well.   Some people use treats as an incentive.  For example, getting a horse to explore a tarp, to cross a stream or puddle, to go through a narrow place.  If a treat is in the trailer when the horse gets bold enough to go in, it acts as a reinforcement.

What’s the difference between an incentive (or bribe) versus a reward or a bonus?   A very good question.  An incentive gives the horse a purpose or reason for doing something.  A reward is offered after the behaviour has occurred.  A bribe has a different ‘feel’ to it than an incentive.  Perhaps a bribe is more in the line of  forcing a horse to do something specific because we want it to happen right now as opposed to setting up an incentive to help the horse learn something.  

Some people teach saddling by giving the horse his dinner as soon as he’s saddled, then  unsaddling again. Sequences such as this give the horse a positive feeling about the saddling experience, that lives on after you no longer need to do it, because the horse is   completely calm and accepting about the saddle.  Similarly, when first teaching a horse to wear a saddle in motion, or if trying to re-educate a saddle-sour horse, saddling up and going for in-hand grazing sessions (which double as non-agenda time to some extent) creates a positive purpose for the horse.  If no grazing is available, putting buckets of food or hay in strategic points and moving the horse in-hand between them can help to take his mind off the saddle by giving him something positive to do and think about.

The same strategy can work when riding to get a reluctant/anxious/worried/shutting down horse to willingly move on and out.  Ride out to some nice grass and allow some dwell time and eating time.  Then ride on to another nice grass spot and do the same.  No grass?  Go out first and put some piles of hay or buckets of food or pieces of apple/carrot in strategic places.  The horse will be impressed with your leadership because you know where these yummy things are, and you are taking him to them.  It seems to be a powerful incentive. 

When I first took my horse out in the trailer, I laid pieces of apple around the new venue   before I asked her out of the trailer.  Then our first job was to go and ‘find’ these apple pieces.  It gave her something to do and link up with my leadership before we set off to explore the new place.

Once the horse is comfortable with the process of getting saddled and ridden out (because he recognises a positive culinary purpose) the good feeling will remain even when you no longer need to put out the food or stop for grazing quite so often. 

At that point you can carry carrots (or whatever) and give him a treat whenever he does something well.  He might stop well, cross water well, do a nice smooth move that you’ve asked for, walk past a scary thing without spooking.  You will find things to reward once you start carrying the treats and looking for things to reward.  The positive communication that is achieved by rewarding a good job has quite a different feel than going along looking for things to ‘correct’.  Under which type of regime would you personally rather operate? 

All the natural horsemanship principles of pressure, followed by release, still underpin everything you do.  Click and treat just clarifies and adds a wonderful positive dynamic. Food is a powerful tool when ‘claiming the spot’ from your horse so you can rise to leadership in the hierarchy.  You put down several piles of hay with a hungry horse.  Once he is eating, you move him off that pile with assertiveness, like a horse higher in the herd hierarchy would do, and claim that pile for yourself.  The multiple piles of hay ensure that the horse can see somewhere else to move to.  When the horse moves off quickly and without opposition, you have established your higher position.  (See chapter 3, Horse Herd Harmonics for details.)

Then you do the same thing using a single bucket of desirable feed.  If the horse does not keep his eye on you as you move around him in big arcs, you move up in his blind spot     directly behind him and chase him off (using a stick or swishy so you remain outside the kick zone).  When the horse stands and faces you politely, you go to him, greet him, then invite him back to the food.  When you can wander over and the horse moves away politely, and comes back as soon as you indicate he is allowed, you have confirmed your leadership.  (See chapter 3, Horse Herd Harmonics for details.) How often you need to do the above exercises depends on how readily the horse accepts your leadership. Some people use a treat like apple sauce in a worming syringe to get the horse to have a positive response to paste worming and oral medications.  

When riding outside of arenas, grass and shrubbery can become the focus of your horse’s attention.  Interestingly, the easiest way I have found to teach a horse not to eat is to teach it when it is okay to eat.  It relates closely to the ‘bucket of feed’ situation above.  I ask for ‘head up’ and am ready to support my cue strongly on the butt (making sure I stay well out of the kick zone) if the head is not up in a second or two.  I don’t pull on the head.  Pulling or wiggling the rope on the head tends to desensitise the horse.  When the head comes up, I praise (or click) and treat.  Then I teach ‘head down’, for which the reward is grass.  We practice this until it is well established. 

At first, I jump up and act all excited when I ask for ‘heads up’, as if there is a wolf on the horizon.  Then, as we practice it regularly, I tone down my body language.  I must stay totally consistent.  Imaginative introverted horses are always looking for that chink in our behaviour that suggests we might not be up to leadership standards today.  Getting the head down to eat, when we have not given the cue, is a score on the board for such a horse. Having watched how forcefully my dominant horses ‘claim the spot’ from those below them in the hierarchy (anything from ‘the look’ to the swishing tail to snaky-neck bite to a double barrel kick) has shown me how forceful I need to be at times.  It is always tailored to the context of the situation. 

Horses are very good at understanding things in context.  They play by natural horse rituals and they understand us clearly when we correctly use their rituals. If you ride with carrots in your pocket you can reward good behaviour from the saddle.  When using click/treat while riding most people click with their tongue.  Obviously, you can also use a specific sound or word, as long as you are totally consistent with it and it’s not something that comes up in ordinary conversation.  It gives the horse a reason to focus on what you are asking, rather than a focus on the grass or other things in the environment.

Some trail riders carry treats when riding and ask trail users they meet to give their horse a treat so that rather than spooking at people with big packs, walking with dogs or riding    bicycles, the horse has a reason to look forward to meeting someone on the trail.

If you keep treats/rewards in closed containers at three or four different locations around your in-hand or liberty play area, the Shadow Game, where the horse walks with you (with walk, jog, walk, halt, back, walk, jog, halt, jog, halt....etc. transitions) has a wonderful purpose that the horse understands — moving from stash to stash, while in-between doing whatever moves you are teaching or improving.  He also won’t know which stash you will go to next, so he has an extra reason for paying attention to you.

When teaching the Boomerang Frolic Game, you send the horse away from you, and at the peak of his flight away, you call him back with a whistle or rattle and reward him with food when he comes back. With some horses (especially imaginative introverts), food will always be their major motivation.  Other horses, once they understand your request, are happy to comply for the sake of a scratch or just being near you.

The click/treat dynamic is so powerful, and so motivating, that it can be used to ‘free-shape’ a desired behaviour.  This means you hang around in a non-agenda driven but observant way until the horse (or any critter) does something you really like, at which point you click and treat.  It can work well to get horses to do (on cue but of their own free will) things like: · lying down · rolling · sitting position which you can click/treat when the horse is in the process of getting up · pilates exercises (e.g., tummy tucks) at the halt · counting (pawing) - a possible way to stop pawing is to put it on cue, then not treat when it is done without a cue. · picking things up. 

The important thing is to keep an open mind, play with some of the ideas and see which might fit your horse’s personality. If you can put up your hand or stick to keep your horse out of your personal space, you can teach him not to mug you.  Having food on your person does not have to become a problem.  Mares carry their milk, but when it comes to natural weaning time, they have no problem telling their youngster that the milk bar is closed.

The horse must know that a treat is always given as a gift.   A treat is never something he can demand by being
belligerent or pushy.  This is an important distinction.  It is okay to have your horse be a confident and cheeky pet, but he must at all times respect your space and the fact that you decide when the treat is given. Be effective and be fair.  Inconsistency will lie at the root of all failure. 

Inconsistency is probably the hardest thing to overcome.  If you never allow the horse into your personal space unless  invited, if you always feed the treat down toward his chest away from your body, then you are in charge of the vending machine.  Carry a swishy or a string with you in case the horse gets pushy.  Do jumping jacks or wave something like a scarf to expand the size of your bubble if you have nothing else to use. 

Horses will tell you if they think you are the lead horse by how they treat you.  You can’t change them, but you can change yourself. It is becoming apparent that it isn’t helpful to make blanket statements about the use of food to motivate or reward.  Hopefully these notes have given you a wider awareness of how food can be used to help horses enjoy their time with us.  Cynthia Royal suggests that every outing with a horse should be a party.  Who likes a party without party food?