Incredible, Edible Rewards for Your Horse

You can motivate your horse and keep your fingers intact by following the equine research foundation's positive reinforcement methods. Instilling good manners is the essential first step.

Have you ever been told that you cannot train a horse by using food as a reward? Have you also been warned that you should never, ever feed a horse by hand or you risk turning him into an obnoxious biter?

Such statements sound sensible and true. Yet our experiences at the Equine Research Foundation have shown that food can be a highly successful motivator for horses when used correctly. The operative word here is correctly!

If you don’t, the second statement can become a grim reality. When we don’t thoroughly understand the principles behind the practice or misuse the techniques, we can create dangerous, unpleasant behaviors. This is why it is imperative to do it right the first time.

Great “PR”

  • Divide your horse’s favorite snack food items into small, equal portions.
  • Use an easy-access pouch to store the rewards.
  • Establish a “bridge” signal which is crisp, clear and consistent, and connect it to the food reward.
  • Reinforce politeness, discourage rudeness, and use a safety barrier when training pushy horses.
  • Watch carefully and time your bridge precisely, rewarding only when the horse is looking straight ahead or slightly away.
  • Remain aware of all your horse’s responses, and avoid rewarding any undesirable secondary behaviors.

Moreover, do not confuse food reinforcement with treat-giving. Food reinforcement is part of a learning process, whereas treats are meant to be extra little goodies. Treats should not be given during training and, if given inappropriately at other times, they can create all sorts of problems. With positive reinforcement-what we’ll refer to throughout this story as “PR”-a horse learns to perform an action in order to receive something he desires, such as food, stroking, or praise.

Horses learn exceptionally well when we use food as a reward, because food satisfies a basic need. When we use positive reinforcement, horses become active participants in the training process, eagerly seeking the right answers. Dull horses brighten, sour horses turn sweet, and the underachiever suddenly moves to the head of the class.

Once training with food is understood and practiced to perfection, it becomes safe, fun, and an excellent complement to a natural approach to horsemanship.

Manners Come First
At the Equine Research Foundation, the first thing we teach in our PR clinics is how to instill perfect manners in the horses in the program. The goal is for a horse to stand quietly at liberty alongside his handler when that person has food. No pushing, mugging, or biting allowed.

One piece of equipment that we’ve found especially helpful is a belted pouch. The ones we provide to our clinic participants are 9″ x 9″ with a flap closure. We avoid using buckets because they are too big and familiar to horses. We also do not put food in our pockets.

Food, of course, is going to be used as our “primary reinforcer.” It’s important to choose a food that your horse likes. This can be pieces of carrot, apples or commercial horse treats-or whatever else your horse especially likes. But it’s best to stay away from grain or messy foods.

Food reinforcers should be small. Your goal is to reward your horse’s efforts, not fill him up so that he loses interest in the reward and the lesson. Carrot pieces should be sliced about a half-inch thick; other food items should be about the same size. And you’ll want to make sure all the pieces are approximately the same mass, so that the horse receives the same amount of food for each correct response. If you’re using carrots, like we will for the purposes of this article, you’ll want to slice the narrow ends of the carrot thicker, and vice versa.

Keep in mind that some horses will take their treats gingerly, while others will open their mouths wide-so watch out for those teeth! At our clinics, we suggest wearing gloves to protect fingers from eager mouths. I prefer thin leather ones. Long sleeves are also a good idea during initial training.

Build a Bridge
Decide, too, on the “bridge” you want to use. A bridge is a “stop action signal” that informs the horse he is performing the correct behavior and that his food reinforcer is on the way. Bridges (a.k.a. “secondary reinforcers”) can be words, whistles, clickers or other signals that are crisp, clear and consistent. At the Equine Research Foundation, we sometimes begin with a clicker but then transfer to the verbal signal “Good.”

During our clinics, participants start with a clicker because people frequently have difficulty saying a word the same way every time. They may start out with a loud, crisp “Good,” but then fade into a whispery, drawn-out “Gooooooood,” which is ineffective. The clicker is constant, thus more beneficial to those who cannot use verbal signals successfully.

For a few days prior to training perfect manners, we use classical conditioning to associate the bridge with food. (Remember Dr. Ivan Pavlov? He was the Russian scientist who first identified this response by ringing a bell and rewarding his dogs with food to the point that the dogs would hear the bell and start salivating).

You’ll want to keep these training sessions short, about 10 minutes, two or three times a day. Put your horse in a stall or behind a fence (you will be on the outside) and have a large bucket or feeder near him but within your reach. Give your bridge and immediately toss a piece of carrot into the feeder.

At this point, it’s vital that you give the food within a few seconds after giving the bridge so your horse makes the association. Do not feed by hand yet. In fact, keep your distance-right now you are just training the bridge/food connection. Repeat this over and over and be very consistent in your timing.

At first, your horse will have no clue about the bridge’s meaning, but with repetition he will associate the sound with food. Our horses at the Equine Research Foundation learn this within one or two training sessions. If your timing is good, your horse should pick this up quickly as well. You should notice a change in his behavior the moment he makes the connection. His ears will perk up and his head will give a slight twitch toward the sound-this tells you that the bridge is starting to be meaningful.

Once your horse understands the bridge, you can train perfect manners almost anywhere as long as the area is relatively quiet with few distractions. A stall, breezeway, or small paddock is fine. Again, keep your training sessions short. If you cannot train several times a day, then do a short session once a day or once every couple of days. It will take a bit longer until the behavior is learned, but you and your horse will get there one way or another.

Stand on one side of your horse, facing in the same direction. Wear the pouch around your waist, but do not try to hide it. In fact, show the pouch to your horse, jiggle it, let him investigate it. He will probably nudge it, or you, and maybe even nibble. As long as you and the horse are safe, try to ignore these unwanted behaviors. This is the learning process. The horse is attempting to figure out how to operate the food dispenser (you). He does not know what the right answer is, so he will keep trying different things until something pays off.

If the horse becomes too pushy but is not biting, you can block the pouch with your hand and arm to stop him from sticking his nose into it. If he persists, then it’s okay to gently-but-firmly bump his nose away.

The aggressive or dangerous horse must be handled differently during early training. For those that are too pushy or tend to bite or kick, it is even more important to think about safety. Therefore, put a strong barrier between you and the horse so that he cannot reach you, and use a bucket or feeder instead of a pouch. Do not work in close proximity to the horse until his manners improve significantly behind the barrier.

In fact, if your horse behaves badly and you are not experienced in training, I highly recommend that you work with a good PR trainer. It is far too easy for novices to do the wrong thing, or do the right thing not quite right, creating more problems. This is not only dangerous, but unfair.

Timing is Everything
Let’s continue with the non-aggressive horse. Timing is everything, so keep a sharp eye on his actions. His head will be moving rapidly left, right, up, down, and every which way. Reinforcing at the right time will determine how successful you’ll be in establishing good manners.

Watch for the moment the horse turns his head slightly away from you. That’s precisely the instant you’ll need to give the bridge, followed immediately with a piece of carrot. Make sure that you bridge at the exact moment your horse is doing what you want. If you bridge too soon-or too late -you will reinforce the wrong behavior.

Likewise, make sure you deliver the food reinforcer immediately after the bridge. Most people prefer to hand feed with an open hand. This is fine as long as you are not clumsy about it. You won’t want to drop the carrot.

Bridge and reinforce repeatedly, and keep in mind that, although your horse may be all over the place, your own actions must be as precise as possible.

It may take a number of repetitions over several short sessions for your horse to figure out that the only right behavior is when he looks straight ahead or a little away from you while he’s standing beside you. Do not try to mold or guide him-let him use his mind to work it out. The better you are with your timing, the quicker your horse will learn. At this stage, reinforce often.

Avoid Unwanted Behaviors
Now for the tricky part. Make absolutely sure you do not inadvertently reinforce, thus “train,” an unwanted behavior while you are working on the current one. Be aware of everything your horse is doing, not just the behavior you are intent on training.

Your horse has seven sides-left, right, front, back, top, bottom, and inside-all with moving parts. This means that, while you may be concentrating on his head, he may be swishing his tail. If you reinforce a good head position at the same time he swishes his tail, you will have a) trained moving the head away while tail-swishing or b) only tail-swishing. Unobservant people unintentionally end up training witchy faces, pinned ears, tail-swishing, twitching, foot-stomping, snorting, grunting, etc.

Yet novices are not the only ones who face these challenges. A few years ago I watched a clicker-training demo at a national horse exposition. The trainer was demonstrating how to train a horse to touch its nose to an object using a clicker and carrots. When the horse touched the object, the trainer would click. But instead of having a piece of carrot handy, she would fumble underneath her jacket to pull out a whole carrot from which she then bit a chunk off to give to the horse. Meanwhile, the horse had been waiting for the carrot, occasionally stomping his foot out of impatience. The demo proceeded, and it was not long until the horse touched the object while enthusiastically stomping his foot.

Do not be too alarmed if your horse reverts back to mooching on occasion. This can happen in early training. Just go back to an earlier step and reinforce a better response.

Hold that pose
The next step is to lengthen the amount of time your horse looks away. You do not want a horse that looks away, and then looks right back. Your horse should look away and hold his head still until he hears the bridge. This stage requires some finesse on your part and must be done gradually.

Once your horse understands the task, draw out the time before you bridge by about one second. If this works, gradually go for another second over the next few sessions, and so on. Your horse will probably perform the behavior and then bring his head back to you. Wait him out until he moves his head away again, then bridge.

Learn to predict when he will bring his head back and bridge before it happens in order to avoid training a “double-take.” You do not want the horse to repeatedly swing his head back and forth. Once you are getting longer “holds,” extend the time even more before reinforcing, but also bridge some shorter ones in between.

Add Variety, Add Challenge
Okay, let’s say your horse gets it by now. He is holding his head where you want it for several seconds. Now it is time to add variety. Change locations by orienting him in different directions. This is essential so that the behavior does not become context-specific. In other words, the horse learns to perform the behavior anywhere, anytime, not just when facing the waterer in the corner of the stall at sunrise.

Along the same lines, once the behavior is learned on one side, change to the other side so that the horse responds to you wherever you are. Your horse should require less training time on the second side, but be sure to train it just as perfectly as the first.

During the initial stages you must bridge and reinforce frequently, but over time you will include a variable reinforcement schedule (VRS) and start to shape behaviors. With shaping, you only reinforce the better responses (such as when he gives you a better head position). With a variable reinforcement schedule, you only give food at certain, unpredictable intervals. Horses, as well as other animals, try harder when a VRS is used. This is also true for humans-just look at the popularity of slot machines.

Fading Out Food
Now, no one wants to carry food around at all times while interacting with horses. Therefore, once a given behavior is learned, you will start to fade out food so that you only give it occasionally, or only at the end of a session. The bridge will become reinforcing in itself. Other reinforcers, such as stroking, can also be added.

Eventually, your horse’s manners should become so perfect that he will hold his head and body still even when you have a full bucket of grain and a big flake of hay, or whether you are holding up whole carrots right next to him. Picture yourself walking into the middle of a herd, carrying hay and a grain bucket, and not getting mugged!

Target practice
Once your horse understands how to be polite at all times, it is then time to add to his repertoire. You can use positive reinforcement to teach your horse to respond to targets, which are handheld or stationary items that serve as an object of focus.

Back in the days when I was doing cognition research with seals and sea lions, I used targets to have these animals stay in one location, place their noses on my hand, follow me, and perform a number of behaviors. Years later, when I tried target training with horses, I found they responded just as easily.

I use targets to train horses to do many different things such as: load into and out of a trailer at liberty; stand in one spot while untied (especially useful if you want your horse to stay in one area of the stall while you work in another); raise, lower and flex their heads to each side; cross obstacles such as creeks or logs; become braver around unusual objects or events; and for fun stuff like jumping, rolling balls, chasing Frisbees, and twirling ropes.

Most people do not want unsafe horses, and I am no exception. But one was donated to the Equine Research Foundation a few years ago and she came with all sorts of issues. When Callie first arrived, we couldn’t stand near her head. She’d swing it around and nearly knock us over. The hind end wasn’t any better due to flying hooves. Things got even more interesting in the saddle when she would toss her head or buck. And, of course, she didn’t know how to do anything slowly. However, within about two weeks, she turned into one of the calmest, safest, most well-behaved horses I have ever encountered. All it took was ground work, bonding, and positive reinforcement.

With positive reinforcement and a strong human/horse bond-if you can imagine it, you can train your horse to do it.

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