Using food rewards in the relationship with your horse

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One of the most common issues people have with clicker training is the use of food rewards. I used to be one of the people with this concern. For starters I thought the use of food would be cheating! And secondly I wanted my horse to want to be with me because of me, not because of that I had lollies to give to it!

I wanted to have such a deep connection with my horses that no equipment (not even lollies) would be needed. My wish was that my thought would be enough for my horse to do as I wanted to. I wanted the magical bond between us.

For years i struggled to find this bond where only my thought would be enough to dance together, but it all contained some sort of pressure and discomfort put on the horse to get there. The goal might have been this “invisible” thread between me and my horse, but the road to get there was everything else but that. I was frustrated and felt lost, not comfortable with the pressure/discomfort I had to put on my horse to make it ‘want’ to be with me.

Not until I learnt more about reward based training (true rewards, not the release of pressure/discomfort) did I actually find that magical bond with my horses. It was then that my horses started to feel even more free to express their thoughts and emotions. And it was then that we actually became equals and friends. I see no opposition between reward based training with the use of food rewards, and that deep connection between the horse and its human. I rather see it as a prerequisite.

If you start to analyse what is really happening between the horse and human you can begin to see that what is often portrayed as “use of energies” and “natural” is not at all that magical, but just the use of negative reinforcement, where the release of a pressure/discomfort shapes the horse’s behaviour in a way we want. When we learn about how behaviour is shaped we can also choose the least intrusive way of teaching our horse what to do. Do we want to teach our horse what to do by applying something it wants to escape? Or do we want to teach our horse what to do with something it enjoys and wants more of? And what do we want our horse to associate us with? Something pleasant, or something bothersome?

Ofcourse we have to take into consideration mirror neurons and how tuning in to one anothers movements and emotions can affect our relationship and training. To meditate together and “do nothing” together with your horse is just as important as the way we train. These things should not be ignored, but rather we should explore them further and see how we can incorporate this into our lives even more. It is a good base to stand on, where food rewards is the most logical way forward.

I see food rewards as a means of communication. With other animals we can sometimes use something else than food as a reward in training (with dogs we can use play as a strong reinforcer, e.g. throw a ball or tugg), but with horses this can be quite a challenge. Scratching is a good “relationship boost” and strengthens the bond between us, but it’s hard to use as a recurrent reward in the training of specific behaviours. This is why food reward often is the best choice when training our horses.

Reward based training gives the horse a voice, where it doesn’t have to fear what might happen if it doesn’t understand or for any other reason doesn’t do what we ask of it. It makes me more aware of what the horse tries to tell me, and the horse feels more relaxed expressing its wishes and emotions. When food rewards, together with setting up the environment for success, is my only mean of explaining to the horse what I want it to do, I get more creative. As a matter of fact, the horse will also get more creative. It will take more initiative and joyfully participate in our schooling together. Because it very much so is a journey together, where you will start to question who is actually training who. This way we can truly get that bond (without ropes or sticks), where we can dance together as equal partners in a friendship.