The Need for Food
Today one of the kids said that they wish they didn’t have to feed treats when the horse does something they want. I explained again that this is how we both reward good choices and motivate future good choices. But they were still bothered, they wished the horse would just do it like a favor, out of love for their person.

I get this feeling. I do so much for my horses but they don’t pay me. I have donated my entire life to their rescue, rehabilitation, and care. But they don‘t give me candy or money for doing all of this.

But here is the facts of it all. We all live our lives performing behaviors that are reinforcing and avoiding situations and behaviors that are punishong. If it feels good, we do it, if it feels bad we avoid or minimize it. It is the law of life. It is how behavior has evolved to keep a species alive and safe. If we don’t avoud danger we are eatten, if we don’t seek the pleasant, we starve, dehydrate, or die from exposure.

But learning in a stable is different from learning in nature. There are no predators that will eat them, they will not starve to death if they decide to take a day off. Their needs are always met and their safety assured. But still the learning remains the same. They do what works. While in nature escape from predators, fear, fighting among a social unit, and seeking grasses, forage, social bonds, and reproduction all motive behavior. Here in the confines of domestication we have different reinforcers. For horses, food and companionship win out. We won’t limit their daily needs, so food becomes our safe and flexible reinforcer of choice.

I bet lots of parents out there wish their children would not need praise or reinforcement to learn. Can’t they just potty because it makes sense? As a favor to me, their parent, who has given them my life, can’t they just use the damn potty? But this will never be enough the learner needs to know and feel as though their choices were good and safe and productive to their wellbeing. Social bonds can go a long way. But those very social bonds are built upon a series of good times together. A history of safety, positivity and needs having been met.

So do i pay my horses with treats? Yes. Everytime i ask for something. Do they pay me? Yes, everytime they ask something of me. They pay with their health, their wellbeing, their joy. This is my reinforcer for doing what i do. And so a social bond is made and soon the need for treats fades. But i still use them everytime.

Why continue to use treats if they will do it for a pat and some praise? Because i want the behaviors and the relationship to be so strong that when i can’t reinforce, i know the horse will do their best, for me. I will save those times for when i must and not take advantage when i don’t need it.