Thursday, May 19, 2011

ASK THE EQUINIST: Treats for Training?


Question: I just read your post about retraining a cinchy horse, and I'm wondering why you didn't use treats for that, or rather, when you would feel that it is appropriate to use treats for training horses. It seems there is much debate about this topic, with some saying never do it, and some saying it's totally okay. What is your opinion?

Carol in AB

Answer: You are right, Carol -- this is definitely a topic that garners a variety of opinions. The people who assert that you should never use treats often disagree with hand feeding horses at all, as they feel it makes the horses pushy and more prone to biting, and they believe a horse will always be "looking for the treat" if you train with them. These things can happen, if you are not knowledgeable about how to teach your horse to politely and passively accept a handheld treat, when and only when you offer it.

Interestingly, research indicates that using food rewards has a positive effect on training (see: http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=15812 and http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=16878&src=fav), and I certainly agree that done properly, it can be very helpful.

Personally, I tend to use treat training more in certain situations than in others. If I'm working with a horse that responds very positively to praise, petting and/or scratching, I am less likely to use treats for most training situations. If, however, I have a horse that clearly doesn't enjoy human contact, I would be more likely to use a treat as a reward. Note that I used the word "reward" and not the word "bribe" -- there is a difference, and it has to do with timing. A reward comes after the horse has performed a wanted response, and it is used as a marker for the correct action. With good reward-based training, you can eventually build up to asking the horse to perform a long and complex number of behaviors without any treats, and perhaps just give them one at the end of the session.

In general, I find that giving a horse some pleasurable association with working with you keeps them happy and motivated in their training -- even if you have to get a bit "tough" with them at some points during the session. Recently, a woman came to watch me work with my horse, Obie, in the round pen, and she was amazed to see that at the end of the session, he did not want to leave the pen and kept following me around the paddock as if to say, "Wait a minute, let's do more!" I had not used treats at all and most often don't with Obie's general training. Why? Because he is hugely motivated by simply being the focus of your attention and the challenge and interest of a training session. Treats would probably only be a distraction for Obie, as he would be likely to think about the treats and focus less on what you are asking him to do.




Gryphon, on the other hand, thinks so hard about what you are asking him, no matter what you might have in your pocket, that it is no problem at all to work with him with treats. Gryphon is my "trick horse" and enjoys working out the question of what new bizarre thing I'm asking him to do -- but he needs the motivation of the treats to keep trying, as the crazy stuff I ask him to do is probably the horsey equivalent of advanced physics. Rewarding his "tries" -- anything that is a move in the right direction -- helps him to know what I want and keeps him interested in the process. I almost always use treats when I am doing trick training with horses, as I find it helps them make the connection between what I am asking and the rather abstract actions I want them to take, and it motivates them to want to keep trying to figure it out. I have not done any serious trick training with Obie, but if I did, I would probably also use treats for that. (Here are a couple of silly little videos of Gryphon doing some of his more unusual tricks.)




As for Twister, I was not sure if I would want to use treats or not with the cinchyness problem. I decided to see how it would go without them, but if it had not gone well, I probably would have opted to use treats to try to overlay her negative associations with positive ones.

If I had to put it in black and white terms (nothing ever really works that way with horses, though), I would say that I tend to not use treats when I am wanting a horse to yield/soften to some form of pressure that I want to use as communication in everyday handling or riding. For example, I want the horse to move forward when I use my leg or slow down when I ask for that with my seat. However, when I want the horse to perform what I call an "abstract" action -- say, to cross his front feet over when I'm standing next to him and cross my own feet -- I find treats helpful. Truly, though, I cross into the "grey zone" all the time, as the situation dictates.

The bottom line is that every horse is different and every situation is different. It is also true that what works well in one person's hands might prove problematic in those of another. So, I guess my answer to your question, Carol, is that whether or not you should use treats to train a certain horse to do a certain thing is totally dependent on the individual horse, what you are training that horse to do, and who you are as a trainer.

ASK THE EQUINIST! In this new series, readers can write to me with their horse-related questions, and I will do my darndest to provide a solid answer, either from my own lifetime of experience or research I have conducted for veterinary-reviewed articles. If I don't have an answer, I will utilize my world-wide network of expert contacts to try to get one for you. To contact me, click on the link that says "THE EQUINIST" under where it says "About Me" on the lower left side of the main page, and you will find another link that says "email me".