Food Arousal

As clicker trainers we want our horses to be happy and eager to participate with training, but not so excited that they’re not able to be thoughtful or focused. Often when people start training with food they go to the store and buy a nice bag of treats, or they chop up apples and carrots, their horse’s favorite snack! But when they begin training the horse is SO excited they aren’t able to focus, invade the human’s space, and get so worked up they’re hardly able to even think about what you’re working on. This is often the point where new clicker trainers give up or throw out the food and try to use scratches or pats instead.

Unfortunately, unless scratches are highly valuable to a horse (like a horse with sweet itch) this isn’t likely to work effectively to earn you the behaviors you’re aiming for. Scratching is also not an efficient or easy to use reinforcer as you advance, a good reinforcing scratch needs to be a good minute or so long, deep and thorough enough to engage a happy grooming face from the horse. Too short or not creating a “happy” grooming face, the scratch really wasn’t all that reinforcing. This gets more and more inconvenient and too low a value when you progress to agility, riding, vet work or other advanced training skills.

The truth is that most horses are hungry all the time. They think they’re starving within an hour or two of finishing their last bite. This is because they are designed to be ingesting food slowly but consistently all day, never going long gaps without consuming food. This is grazing, trickle feeding, type consumption. So, many horses in domestication often develop anxiety problems related to food because often they get their healthy allotment of food and they consume it quickly and run out, leaving them feeling “starving” the rest of the day – even though they had an appropriate amount of food and look a good weight. When their food is split into just 2 or 3 meals with long gaps in between horses often develop issues with stress around food. Especially if they have to fight other horses or eat rushed to get the food before another horse moves them off of it. This develops into serious anxiety problems which often becomes a major issue when we attempt to use food in training.

Even if your horse has never known a hungry moment in their life, they may still have tension and over excitement around food. So how do we safely and effectively use food as a reward system for our horses? 

1) Food consistency – outside of training horses should have access to forage 24/7. If you need to limit forage for weight reasons, use slow feeders and enrichment feeders to make sure the horse will eat slowly throughout the day, not binge and starve. This will reduce overall feeding time anxiety. Also make sure there is no competition for food – make sure there are more food locations than number of horses, so no one is ever without. If there are 3 horses in a field, make sure there are 5 or 6 spots to get food.

2) Enrichment – Providing enrichment opportunities that also provide food (puzzle toys, treat balls, likits, and so on) allow the horse the opportunity to work for food without the connection to humans, reducing the intensity of wanting to be around people.

3) Low food value – in training we want to carefully monitor the value of the food we’re using. In situations where we have a horse who is over-aroused, too excited for the food, we want to use very low value food in training. I like to use hay pellets, chopped hay, chaffe hay, hay stretcher, hay cubes, or carb safe pellets (these are great for donkeys or IR ponies/minis). The more time the horse gets to chew this food the more it will allow the horse to feel satiated and relax into the training.

4) Large handfuls – with our low value food we’ll feel larger handfuls or feed small amounts very quickly to help the horse feel satiated and have time to chew. This is relaxing for the horse allowing them to think and process between offering behaviors.

5) High Rate of Reinforcement – when training reinforce at a high frequency – feed often. If your horse isn’t performing the behavior well enough to earn reinforcement that frequently, make the behavior easier. Break down the difficulty of the behavior and make the correct answer easier by arranging the environment to make it easy for your horse to succeed. This will allow you to keep the frequency of reinforcement high enough to feel successful, satiating and motivating to the learner without hitting frustration.

6) When to use higher value – Save the higher value treats for untrusting horses, high speed activities, or advanced training. Using small, wonderful treats, will encourage alot more enthusiasm and engagement from your horse. This is great for horses who are nervous and uncomfortable around people. Putting a pan down and back away with a small amount of higher value food, then when the horse engages you put the next pan down and back away, each time the horse will approach more and more readily towards you. When you’re able to handfeed mixing the high value food into the lower value handfuls can help them have the chew time and value balanced. When working on high speed behaviors a small amount of high value food can encourage the enthusiasm you’re looking for without loosing energy to chew time, but this and other skills like these are for more advanced training, after relaxation has been established and can be re-achieved easily. It can also help to mix in high value treats to your chewy food when working on “the real deal” situations with the vet or farrier or trailer loading, as opposed to your usual low value food for just preparation work.

7) Start with calm – if you’re approaching your horse to work with them and they are buzzing with excitement, this may not be a good place to start. What can help is giving them some free food, scattered on the floor, a flake of hay, or a puzzle toy with food. Once the horse is calmly satiated with this food source, then begin your training.

8) Have an alternate available – Make sure there is another food source available while training, a hay net, a food toy, or even just a bucket of free food. This will ensure you keep your training up to par or the horse can easily just go to the other food. This will allow the horse to be more honest in how difficult your training is becoming.

9) Protected Contact – utilizing protected contact is one of the easiest ways to help your horse be successful learning with positive reinforcement, and to keep everyone safe and having fun. This is where you work with any physical barrier between you and the horse, a fence, a stall door, even a temporary pool noodle “fence”. This allows the horse to explore behavioral options without putting the human at risk and needing to resort to punishment or the use of aversives to defend themselves. This also allows the horse time to relax between behaviors and not have to be “on” and perfect throughout the whole session, where they may forget their training and invade your space or forage around your body. It reduces the number of “wrong” choice the horse may make to make the goal behavior easier for the horse to perform. If you’re standing there with a bucket of food it’s awful hard to notice the target off to the left when all their focus is on that bucket! So having a barrier keeping that option unavailable allows the horse to focus on what is available, maybe a target they can reach. This is beneficial for horse and human especially in the early stages of training and should be utilized whenever possible. It’s also great to utilize in advanced training to allow the horse more choice and control in their training and provide more safety for ourselves when first working on high energy behaviors, like using a “reverse round pen”. Those are a round pen made out of small portable fencing of any sort inside a larger area, where the horse works outside of the pen and the human is inside the pen.

10) Safe Space – work in an area the horse feels safe and comfortable. This is usually a quiet, familiar place with other horses nearby, but separated so the horse doesn’t need to resource guard you and the food. If you’re working on going somewhere away from the comfortable place, remain within a comfortable bubble and slowly stretch the distance as your horse grows in confidence.