Feed Me

Please note this is intentionally free of science speak and is intended for those beginning to form their ideas around working with food.

Working with food to change or create behaviour

Why do people feel the way they do about working with food?

Thinking back I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy feeding titbits to the animals in my care. From being small and caring for my ponies and dogs to being older and caring for my family of humans and animals I have always enjoyed feeding them delicious morsels.

Trudi Dempsey equine behaviourist
calm alongside food

Did this ethos come from my parents? I imagine it did because I certainly wasn’t out buying sacks of pony nuts and dog biscuits aged 10. I do recall buying dog chocolate and making carrot chains as Christmas gifts giving me great pleasure (ah getting reinforced myself). I’m sure I used the power of food but I had no concrete ideas of how it worked, it just did.

I used food to encourage catching and loading. I learned at a young age to catch my first pony, Nutty, by associating myself with food.

I think there was a period around the early 90’s when natural horsemanship became a thing and food became frowned upon in terms of training. It was considered an unnatural addition to a system that seemed highly unnatural to me but that’s for another time of writing. Later in the ascendancy of natural horsemanship I remember being quite cross as a friend and colleague spoke publicly about how unnatural it was to use food for training as a mare never gave food to its foal…they weren’t like dogs and we shouldn’t treat them as such. Quite cross? Actually I was mad but I left it there and grew wiser and calmer and just learned how to feed my horses better so that I could pass on that skill to others.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

I help people change the behaviour of horses and sometimes that involves food. There are often times that it doesn’t involve food either because the human isn’t good at handling clean food delivery or the horse has pre-existing emotional struggles around food. But food remains for me the biggest motivator of behaviour in my tool box.

Food is highly reinforcing

What exactly does reinforcing mean? It is often thrown around training conversations and I’m not sure everyone truly understands what reinforcement means.

Reinforcement simply means that certain behaviour is more likely to happen again (strengthen) when it is followed by certain things. That can be the addition of something the horse (human, dog, cat, chicken…) finds pleasant like food and scratches or the removal of something less pleasant like the pressure of the leg or hand to start or stop moving.

Ask anybody about Pavlov and they will tell you it’s all about conditioning. Behaviourists and clicker trainers (insert any other R+ method you prefer) get highly excitable in conversations around classical conditioning and operant conditioning…….whoa yes sorry this is meant to be a jargon free look at feeding your horse in training. I’ll just repeat the oft quoted Bob Bailey saying that ‘Pavlov is always on your shoulder’. Any behaviour nerds reading know that things are always more complex once you start to understand more so please don’t shout at me that I’ve got it all wrong, folks need to start at ground level with this information.

So in a nutshell reinforcement is all about learning. I do something and it’s followed by something I like….I learn to do it more often (strengthen the behaviour) to get more of the thing I like.

Now you might say you don’t want to worry about the science stuff, you just want to feed your horse titbits. Well OK, away you go, fill your boots as we say but be aware that your horse (like any other organism) learns regardless of whether you intend them to or not. It isn’t our choice it is just the way we all learn…the power of consequences is strong.

Run that one again…a horse (cat, dog, peacock…) learns through consequences following its actions whether you want it to or not. So why not use the power that nature has invested in consequences and get smart around food.

You go to the field and because a few times you have fed your horse after you arrived at the field gate he wanders over to check you out. You put on the headcollar and offer food and hey presto, as if my magic, your horse has been reinforced and is more likely to come to the gate again next time. Coming to the gate and putting on the headcollar has been reinforced by the consequence of food being given afterwards.

Unwanted behaviour

All sounds pretty perfect doesn’t it and you would wonder why everyone hasn’t thrown their carrot sticks on the heap and taken up real vegetables in training. Well as always the answer lies in the detail. Using food in training can be very reinforcing and lead to lots more of the behaviour we want but it can also lead to behaviour that we don’t want.

For example the time you don’t have the food at the gate, you catch the horse and ignore the pleading looks. You try to lead them in and they plant themselves in order to frisk your pockets. Oh yes of course you think, I forgot the carrot, and reach inside your jacket for a titbit. Now the catching behaviour might look like…arrive at the gate, headcollar on, frisk human for food, food produced, horse reinforced and will use this strategy again. We now have a ‘bargy’ or ‘disrespectful’ (their words not mine) horse which is one of the reasons those folks who avoid training with food might just have decided to avoid it.

I once visited a new client that had been on a day’s clicker training course and was now fearful of entering her horse’s field as he would tear off her pockets (yes literally torn off) in his quest to find food.

Clearly repeatable, choose you cues or the horse will

How can we be sure that we only encourage the behaviour we want around food? First we need to be clear about the rules of food delivery. How we carry the food with us and how that food is released. Horses like clear, simple and easily repeatable cues and if we don’t create them they will spot patterns in our behaviour and the environment that will act as cues (and then get frustrated when they don’t work).

For instance when we use the word ‘good’ it may have been followed by the addition of food so that after a while the horse hears ‘good’ as a cue for food to be delivered.

If we feed every time we mount then the horse starts to see mounting as a behaviour that is followed by food (we have reinforced it dozens of times already) and the day we don’t offer it or are late offering it the horse starts the flamenco of frustration (yes it’s an extinction burst for those that like the science speak) until we do and yes you’ve sussed it, in future if we’re not careful the mounting block procedure begins to include the flamenco.

For those naysayers who dislike giving food just remember you too are reinforcing behaviours but you’re removing things (like the pressure on the rope or headcollar to bring the horse through the gate or to the mounting block) that make it more likely that your horse will offer the behaviour again. Same rules apply and in some ways it’s easier to avoid the stress of forgetting the food or not giving it on time to avoid those extra behaviours slipping in. Remember that the horse has learned to remove the pressures (even those finger light, weight of a fairy fart, aids) as part of the learning process.

I just can’t fathom it out, why would you prefer to take something away that’s not nice rather than offer something that is nice?

Learning some guidelines around feeding will help avoid stressing you and your horse when training:

  • You could carry food in a waist bag or the pocket of a specific jacket that you only use for food delivery. This will become part of the environmental cue that food is available and means when you don’t wear it the horse can get used to the fact that food isn’t going to be offered. Place food in closed containers that you can access when with your horse- on the edge or the work area or grooming area or just outside the gate. That way you can ‘release’ the food with your horse without them getting the idea that you are the food- you become the facilitator and as such just the kind of human a horse wants to be with.
  • Use a simple, easily repeatable cue every time you offer food… EVERY time. This could be as simple as a hand to your food bag or a word like ‘yes’, ‘yay’, or any short word that you don’t use in any other context. Even a lifted hand could be developed into a ‘food’s coming’ cue.
  • Make sure your food delivery is repeatable. So be ready when you’ve given your cue that food is coming. Make sure your hands are free to get to the food. Make sure the food is easy to get hold of and hold out your hand towards the horse so that they are not being reinforced for coming towards you to get the food.
  • Clean food delivery reduces the stress around food and makes learning the good stuff easier whilst reducing the sneaky learning of unintended additions.
  • Food is often everywhere around your horse so choosing food that is reinforcing can be tricky- match your choice of food to the competing environment be that plentiful or sparse
  • Never work with a hungry horse, it is unethical and frustrating for them
  • Invest in training for yourself so that you can hone your feeding skills

Training animals can be complex and if you are training with food (which I strongly encourage) the starting point should be exceptional observational skills (horses are incredibly good at this) and clean food delivery.

If you would like help with your food delivery then get in touch to arrange a session with me or why not organise a small group workshop for your yard or club, both classroom and practical days available.

email trudi@equinetrainingandbehaviourist.com

La Vie en Rose: observing the pace

Of course every week at work is interesting but some sessions just twang your heart strings and this last couple of weeks there have been a few.

The amazing Dancer and his (equally amazing) mum had an epiphany (me too) when we stripped everything back to zero. Turns out she had always felt she should have some progress to report, some big achievement at each meeting.

How wrong could she have been! This incredible person who draws on her lifetime of experience to guide her towards the absolute truth from her horse had no need to feel the need to perform.

We looked to ourselves. Our timing. Our tidiness in cues and reinforcing. We changed the environment and watched for the signals from Dancer and acted on them. I have no video but if I had it would be unlikely to convey anything close to the emotion we all felt as Dancer created his own cues for us. Just to observe him setting the pace was uplifting.


Back to Rose where we have been allowing her to lead the pace too. To some it might seem counter-intuitive to allow the horse to control the pace of learning. Increasingly these techniques are being referred to as start buttons which is a great handle and clearly explains how they can be used.

Observation is key. The horse deserves our full attention, how can we expect their attention if ours wanders?

Observation is key. Cuing, re-cuing, throwing of the kitchen sink to get behaviour when the horse’s mind is elsewhere (chewing, listening to things we can’t hear etc) is a pointless waste of time and energy.

Here’s Rose beginning a new behaviour- putting her head into the cordeo. I’m working hard at being the same every time I set up the behaviour, that’s really important. No hand in the food (unless that is part of my cue), no offering the cordeo before Rose signals that she’s ready, no spurious additional tics from me.

At 12 seconds she clearly tells me she’s ready to go again. At 21 seconds she tells me again. At 34 seconds I felt I missed a subtle yes, at 40 seconds I didn’t miss it a second time. The last, at 52 seconds, came after a big distraction but with no cuing from me (aside from the fact that I was there) she came straight back with the continue signal.

La Vie en Rose: take my hand, soft leading

Whilst Rose and I continue to develop cues at liberty with our R+ target work (luring, which has such a bad rap but is often in play whether we know it or not) we are also beginning to advance our ‘on rope’ work.

When Rose arrived at Jenny’s she was quite typical of a lot of cobs (horses in general) I meet. See a blade of grass and off to eat it…oh there’s a human on the end of my rope, really hadn’t noticed! There was no agenda of offending (horse’s don’t), no disrespect (nor this) in fact no human constructs at all. Just grass being higher up the interest scale than the human on the rope and a lack of knowing how to behave around us.

Much of her determination to get somewhere was fuelled by wanting tasty morcels but also a lack of understanding of the human world and fear of the unknown. Whilst it’s just great to let horses be horses there are times when, for practical and safety reasons, horses need to understand how to hang out in the human world. This requires a good deal of clarity from the human. No verbosity, no random physical movements, clean cues, clean reinforcement.

Yes, I know, horses learn to feel what’s in your heart, they can ‘sense’ what you want. They really can. And no I haven’t given up my last semblance of sanity, I’m still rooted in science but that’s what it feels like sometimes. The reality is that they are so darned clever at spotting things in our behaviour that we don’t realise we’re giving the signals. Heck who gives one whether we see that in my cold light of day or in a mysterious out of body way, the end result is that horses attach meaning to throw away behaviours that we exhibit.

Day one…horse I love you, I will bury my head in your mane and laugh or cry as you are THE only thing in my world…. Day two…I will share our space with other humans and almost ignore you while I give them all my attenton… Day three…human, I am confused and will just get on with being a horse…human determines horse lacks respect! What’s a horse supposed to do with all those mixed messages? Likely do what they want to.

Anyway I digress. Long and short of it Rose had learned that it was easier to do her own thing, at least she was reliable. Jenny has worked really hard on giving all her attention to Rose when they are together. Equally importantly she’s been careful to be cleaner with her cues and her food delivery. Every horse/human partnership is different and depending on the path they want to tread together will have different essential basics to put in place. For Rose and Jenny one of the essential basics was soft rope walking with easy turning, stopping and starting. We began a long way from there with Rose bracing her neck and leaning on the rope.

In the video we start by putting the headcollar and rope on. I was pleased that Rose interacted with the process and remained soft and calm, she waited patiently for me to finish. This is a big change and credit due to Jenny for working with this as well.

As I pick up the rope she doesn’t move her head- I’ve worked on a neutral response to this so that she understands random rein cues mean nothing. She then responds softly to a cue we’ve added recently; a light feel towards me (originally lured using a target and the rein cue attached later) to ask her to be with me when she becomes distracted. I loved her soft ears after this. This is a cue to be used when there is no time to wait for her to bring her attention back to me, say on a road when traffic means we might need to move quickly.

What I loved even more…I know I’m an excitable geek…was the cue she then gave me that she was ready to go at around 40 secs. There is a lot of talk lately of start buttons giving the horse some control in the training but I always look for the horse to check in first before asking more and in modern parlance this cue is a start button. Rose gives obvious cues to me that she is ready to continue. Sometimes these signals are tiny, observation is everything.

At 54 secs I again add the soft rein cue to bring her attention back to me, softly flicking ears suggests she accepted my request. Towards the end (around 1m) I included a little startle reaction from her, she impressed me with the way she just came back alongside and softened into the walk. All this with builders to her right, Pete the peacock strutting his thing and racehorses exercising up the lane alongside!

So pleased with her progress!

La vie en Rose, more ways to deliver the reinforcer

I try to video every time I work with Rose. Mainly to observe from the outside (it’s too easy to feel the comfort of staying on the inside) so that I can improve but also to document here. I have lots of video to look through. Some of it we’re not even on screen or only every 10 seconds or so! There are some interesting minutes of my back or Rose’s peachy bum. This little snippet has me playing with the reinforcer. I will write about reinforcers in more depth on my blog but this just caught my eye as we were actually in shot. I will one day find time to sort through it all with the editor and publish more progress.

We’re just working on some clean ‘loops’ so that the behaviour happens and is followed by the reinforcer in a smooth recognisable pattern that leads us back to the behaviour again.

I’ll come to you or you come with me?

I’m not so concerned about the behaviour although this is part of a ‘come to me and wait’ loop that I’m building and it’s coming along fine. I’m more interested in the pattern of reinforcement from my hand being smooth, using both hands and with me in different places in relation to Rose. I’m adding in a ‘go to the bucket and get reinforced’ which is different for the ‘wait and I’ll come to you’ pattern.

The difference is that in the wait for me to come to you protocol I click, keep my feet still, hand goes in bag and I feed. In the come to the bucket I click and move my feet first and put my hand into the bag as I get to the bucket and throw in the food.

And why take her to the bucket?

Back at the bucket we get the chance to set up a new loop and the whole process starts again.

La vie en Rose, clean and calm food delivery

In my first entry I mentioned that Jenny wanted to help her horse Rose with her anxiety in the arena and when hacking out. Before embarking on behaviour change Rose was checked over by Jenny’s vet to rule out any physical problems that could be triggering her behaviour. Also given the go ahead by dentist, saddler and physio we got started.

I think most of us understand the need to ‘listen’ to the behaviour of horses but often we miss the less obvious, more nuanced conversations they try to engage us in. When we begin to develop a relationship with a horse it can be tempting to ignore some of the obvious signs because we are, after all, human and have an agenda. Horses don’t share our agenda!

When we began clicker training with Rose it was obvious that she struggled to keep calm around food. That might have been because she had a previous history of being hungry. Perhaps she was pushed off food by other horses. Maybe she had come to understand that hand fed treats could be ‘nudged’ out of the human with her nose. It’s usually impossible to know for certain the reasons for behaviour happening. The first protocol is to avoid any potential triggers for the behaviour. The obvious trigger to avoid in this case was hand feeding.

The purists might be shaking their heads at me (they shake their heads a lot). I should be good enough as a trainer to design protocols that allow for food reinforcement that avoid triggering Rose’s anxiety. Yes that’s true and often I would be in agreement but if you have a green horse and a green clicker trainer, what then? My remit as a certified behaviourist is in line my ethics; to apply the LIMA strategy with all clients, horse and human.

Improving Rose’s anxiety around hand feeding for clicker training was going to need more training competence than Jenny had at that time. To avoid the whole training scenario becoming highly aversive to Rose (and therefore Jenny) we needed to cover some basics first. We had already begun the bucket game so Rose could begin to associate food with Jenny but without the stress of hand feeding. This becomes helpful later when different food delivery techniques (like throwing food into a bucket or on to a mat) can help build movement into the training (more in future on this).

Rose now has confidence to play buckets alone

Jenny spent time with Rose wandering down their quiet lane to hand graze. We built this up slowly adding distance and duration to avoid triggering any separation based anxiety. We added some ridden hacks (starting off at metres rather than kms from the gate) with me on foot and rose walking alongside.

At the same time (and outside of any handling procedures) Jenny began work on safe food delivery. Using protected contact at the gate Jenny learned the protocol of cleanly offering food in an easily repeatable manner. This is so important… clean, repeatable and not contingent on any new behaviours. The only behaviour the protocol relies on is calmly waiting for the food. To begin with the food is offered at a superfast rate, to the onlooker it looks like the human is just pumping food in faster than the horse can eat it. This avoids triggering the anxiety that surrounds hand feeding. Rose quickly began to understand that food came from Jenny without any need to demand it. With my help Jenny was able to shape a soft head forwards posture while Rose waited for food. The context was moved from the gate to free in the arena; each time things changed we returned to a superfast rate of reinforcement to help Rose adapt to the changes.

It was essential that both Jenny and Rose understood the food rules. It is vital that we remain consistent when offering food. Inconsistency is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety and it is up to us to be consistent. Horses, like all non-human animals that don’t have complex verbal communication, will spot your inaccuracies even if you don’t! Videoing sessions can help identify short comings so I regularly video myself and Jenny.

Some people prefer to only offer food from a bag or container, others from a pocket or special jacket. As long as the rules are clear it shouldn’t matter. The rules are what keep anticipation anxiety low, not where you keep the food. If the training context allows for it then having secure boxes of food placed around the edge of the arena, that only you the human can unlock, often works brilliantly. If your horse only gets food during training from a bag at your waist then putting on that bag is going to suggest that food is on offer and that can inherently cause anxiety. It is our job to write the rules and stick to them. If we don’t then we’ll be caught out by the super observation powers of the horse.

Jenny also worked with the handsome Travis, Rose’s buddy, who is a completely cool dude around hand fed food. It’s so helpful to have practice with other horses and even other species! Although we are yet to start training Pete the Peacock!

Pete, always on hand to create a spooky moment!

Jenny has done a great job with Rose’s hand feeding, she is now calm and patient when given food during training from the ground and in the saddle. Our clicker training began again a couple of weeks ago. To begin with I set up an area for us to work, close to Rose’s favourite spot of her ramp – an elevated area that is rather heavy to move. Unfortunately it is right next to a building site, Rose gets distracted but is coping with it well. I have set up blocks for us to work around in what I think folks refer to as a reverse round pen. The area leads directly from the ramp and back to it. This is our first video where I began to set up the rules about the way I would offer food. Rose came to the ramp herself (this is a highly repeatable behaviour for her) once I was stood in the centre of the block area. She glanced at me so I clicked and came forwards to remove the head collar…play time.

I used a high rate of reinforcement, clicking before offering food, associating the sound with the food. Building up a good history with no opportunity for her to become anxious about the food. This is a short clip (to save death by boredom of watching paint dry) of a longer procedure. I was happy with her calmness, noted her distractions as the builders made noises and then released myself from the game with multiple clicks and some food on the ramp so that I could cleanly leave the arena without any fuss.

Important things I noted from the session:

  • Rose was happy to come to the ramp with me close by, if she doesn’t then I should consider whether I work with her
  • Rose clearly glanced at me which might be perceived as a let’s go signal, I’ll keep a look out for that and potentially develop it
  • Feeding from a big open bag at my front worked well
  • Carrots and apples seemed to be equally well accepted
  • Making a clear, almost exaggerated, hand delivery from hand resting outside of the bag before clicking to an outstretched open palm under her nose after clicking seemed acceptable to her
  • Offering the hand and food lower encouraged a lower head position
  • Offering food higher made no difference to her calmness, she remained calm throughout
  • Feeding from either side of her followed the same protocols but my left hand is undoubtedly less smooth so I’ll work on that
  • Next time I need to vary the position I stand in or that will become part of the cue for food

This progression does not comprise of huge steps ever skywards, it is painfully slow and in such tiny elements that a blog can’t really get over in its true real time. We went on to some very basic target work in the next element of the session which I’ll talk about more in the next entry. A short sweet return to the clicker.