“NO TREATS ALLOWED. DANGEROUS – WILL BITE!” This bright orange sign adorned the stall of one of our first lesson ponies for years.
Under saddle, she was saintly. But one whiff of food transformed into her into a fire-breathing cookie monster with overeager teeth. Even offering treats in a bucket was too much of a liability with a timid child present.
Fast forward a few more years, to when summer day camp featured an art session with our talented equine artist.
One by one, inexperienced children offered the pony a loaded paintbrush, watched her slap the brush against a canvas, then offered a food reward by hand.
The artist? The same pony that used to have the warning sign!
It wasn’t the horse who had to change her attitude: it was us.
By opening our minds to a new method of training, we learned how to make our horses safe in the presence of food — even the cookie monsters!
This had several unexpected benefits:
So what’s the trick to turning cookie monsters into patient, polite horse treat recipients? Getting comfortable with some basic positive reinforcement training.
Positive reinforcement, sometimes referred to as clicker training or R+, uses an audible signal followed by a food reward to modify and shape a horse’s behavior.
This differs from most traditional training practices, which rely on negative reinforcement or the application and release of pressure.
Positive reinforcement training has become a bit of a buzzword in the horse world. Like any other method of training, it can be a powerful, game-changing skill to learn, AND it has the potential to do great harm if used incorrectly.
This has created the misconception that food rewards create pushy, poorly-trained horses, when in fact the opposite can and should be true. Rather than creating workarounds, this training method addresses a horse’s food-related emotions and behavior and establishes safe practices for horse and handler.
Just like Western riders and dressage riders have a lot to learn from each other, so can trainers of different philosophies. We have found that by learning and practicing some basic principles of positive reinforcement training, and passing them on to our students, we can create versatile, well-trained horses AND handlers.
All successful positive reinforcement training begins by teaching the horse how to behave politely in the presence of food.
This initial training often takes place using protected contact, or a barrier between the horse and the handler, to create a safer learning environment.
The goal is for horses to learn to stand relaxed and at attention, with head forward or turned very slightly away, while awaiting further instructions from the handler.
Many trainers refer to this behavior as “calm default stationing.” In our lesson program, and in our HorseCentered curriculum, we call it by the slightly more child-friendly name, “patient position.”
Students must also practice patience as they wait for the horse to demonstrate this behavior before “clicking” and offering their treat. When food is given, either by hand or by dropping in a bucket, the student goes to the horse — not the other way around!
This system helps the horse develop self-control in the presence of food and eliminates mugging or dangerously pushy behavior. It may sound like a lengthy training project, but most horses can learn patient position within a few 5-10 minute training sessions.
Set the stage for successful treat training
Another important principle of positive reinforcement training is to set the horse up to succeed, not fail, by considering the antecedents, or the events, action, or circumstances that occur before a behavior.
Food aggression is created by humans, sometimes by thoughtless feeding or training, and sometimes by putting the horse in an environment that increases his anxiety.
Without free-choice forage, for example, a horse’s need to eat may create greedy gobbling or habitual grass-diving. Consider that traditional riding lessons often last an hour or more — at which point the horse’s stomach is all acid, no food!
Creating horses that are calm around food starts with species-appropriate management; this a project that can require a little creativity if you have working horses who are also easy keepers!
When you start by looking at the big picture of equine behavior, everyone reaps the benefit.
Students who learn how the rest of the horse’s life impacts his attitude and performance will become better — and safer — caretakers, riders and trainers.
Get them started with the help of this teaching guide: What a Horse Wants.
Choose your treats wisely
When you think of feeding treats to a horse, you might think of carrots, peppermints, or packaged horse cookies. However, many horses are often much happier working for lower-value food rewards such as alfalfa, timothy pellets, or even hay. This more natural option allows the horse to be fed with greater frequency while reducing their food drive and maintaining their health.
No matter how skilled students get in their food delivery, they must learn and respect the golden rule of treating: ALWAYS ask permission first! As you teach students how to treat horses safely, use the opportunity to discuss the intricacies of equine digestion and the harmful effects of sugary diets.
It is also important for students to understand that patient position is a trained behavior, and that it does NOT come factory-installed on every horse. Students of the HorseCentered curriculum must learn how to determine when treating is and is not appropriate, and how to interact with an untrained horse in a way that improves his food manners.
Like most tools we use with our horses, it takes knowledge, timing and some thoughtful training to use food rewards ethically and safely, while still prioritizing the safety of your students.
But it’s a worthwhile investment of time. Incorporating treat-giving into your lesson horses’ daily routine can actually make the horses safer, give your students a better education — along with a lot of warm fuzzies! — and open some doors to revenue-boosting activities.
Like pony painting parties… which are fun for EVERYONE involved!