girl holding lead rope and feeding horse

The Food Question

“The Food Question”

This is probably the biggest question people ask when starting positive reinforcement training “Do I need to use food?”, “Won’t food make my horse bite?”, “Isn’t using food bribery?”, “Won’t food take away from my personal relationship with my horse?”.

I’ll address these one at a time.

“Do I need to use food?” well, no, but it is the fastest, easiest, cleanest reinforcer to use. There are thousands of reinforcers to use with the horse, food and scratches are the most common, but we have our situational reinforcers, opening the door, turning out with friends, and anything the horse wants in a given scenario. But what’s the one thing our horses *always* want? FOOD! What’s the one thing that makes us happy, feel good, that never gets old? Food! Scratches are most people’s back up, but the value of a scratch is usually much lower than food, it’s also heavily variable, depending on the day, location, season, and so on. Food is consistently desired, maintains a fairly level value to the horse, and is super quick and easy to use as a reinforcer.

“Won’t food make my horse bite?” The horse does the behavior that’s reinforced. If the horse investigates your body and receives food, next time they will forage your body again. Each time this behavior is reinforced the stronger it gets. If the behavior stops being reinforced with no alternative, often the horse exaggerates this by foraging more extremely, like pawing or biting. Just like they might with a food producing toy. The horse is not being fresh intentionally, they’re doing the behavior that worked. So if you don’t want your horse biting you for food, teach them safe ways they can earn food reinforcement, standing facing forward, touching a target, sending to a target and so on.

“Isn’t food bribery?” We get this alot, like we’re some mafia dealers paying off the cops with little bits of carrot. First of all, bribery is a human construct, we have an ugly association with it due to corruption in politics and so on. But horses have no construct about what bribery is or isn’t, only if it works. That being said, no training with food reinforcers isn’t bribery, just like being paid for your job isn’t bribery. A bribe comes *before* the behavior, like a direct food lure (which we may use sometimes! but like I said, horses don’t think this is some dirty deed). While reinforcement comes *after* the behavior. When the horse does the goal behavior we bridge (marking the desired behavior) then we pay them for it with something they value.

“Won’t food take away from my relationship with my horse?” Oh this is a big one. Most of us who are looking for more ethical ways of working with our horses are doing so because we love them and want a special relationship with them. Early in our training it can feel the horse is very focused on the food – because it’s such a high value reinforcer, while our companionship is really not. Of course horses are focused on the food early on! It’s the only consistently good thing in their life. But if we hope to modify the behavior of our horse, and not just spend quality time with them, we have to influence their behaviors one of two ways – having them work to avoid or work to earn.

Remember Classical Conditioning? How when something with no meaning is paired with something with meaning the first stimuli gains the meaning of the stimuli is was paired with. Just like after several times of the click being followed by a treat, the click takes on the meaning of the food – as well as all the emotional responses correlated with the food. While we can always sit in the field as a companion to our horses, becoming a neutral stimulus in their environment – if we hope to modify their behavior in anyway it’s going to require some interaction from us. In training a behavior we can add something the horse finds aversive, so we can remove it when the horse does our desired behavior. But how does that classically condition us and our presence? When they’re with us we are adding and removing aversives – we become a conditioned aversive. While if when we’re training a behavior we use shaping, targeting or capturing, and then reinforce the behavior with something the horse finds appetitive, how do we become conditioned then? If everytime we are with them they are earning reinforcers and feeling good, we become a conditioned appetitive in our horse’s life.

Very rapidly our relationship becomes appetitively conditioned, our own presence is treasured by our horses because we have been connected with all the good things in our horse’s life. So while early on the food is all they’re focused on, very quickly the relationship begins to be equally treasured. When i walk into my barn my horses buzz with joy, each horse wants to be the one chosen to play, they race us to the agility ring, they enjoy our company. The relationship is so purely wonderful for both partners. For the first time in history we humans have a way to work with horses in a completely *mutual* way. It’s incredible, we should rejoice!

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