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.
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.
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.
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.