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#3: Is Your Horse Doing This Just for the Food?

Do you think your horse is only doing it for the food? Many people find their way to positive reinforcement(R+) because they are struggling with some particular behavior, something their horses is doing, or maybe not doing. R+ is viewed as a means to an end. I understand that mind set, however, the part of R+, that we love, is the deep, visceral changes that happen with time. That is another whole subject into itself and many of you have heard me go on and on about how valuable it is and how we can change their perception of the world.  Instead of seeing everything as worrisome and the potential for danger, they begin to see things as a potential for something good to happen. It truly builds boldness and confidence WHEN it is done in a thoughtful and systematic way. I will address that more in another post. Meanwhile, I’ll get back on track…

The training, while based in food, should not stay in the place of your horse only doing it for the food. This dogmatic approach can create, what feels like to me, a sense of “entitlement” in our learner. This mindset is a disservice to our horses, to ourselves and especially our relationship. 

In the early 60’s they did a study that involved, if I remember correctly, rats and then the studies moved onto other species. They taught the participants to step on a lever for food. They got the participants good at this behavior. When the rats were given free food and the option to hit the lever for food, which do you think they chose? They tended to choose the lever, to work for the food over simply eating the available food. The results were the same with the different species..well, except for cats. 😆 From this study came the term Contra-Freeloading.

We have often reiterated that R+ can be done poorly, just like any other type of training. One of the biggest struggles that people seem to encounter is getting too reliant on the food and not realizing how transforming it is to engage them in putting effort into getting their food. This is a really important distinction, however, it is not very well recognized, even by some R+ trainers. Ideally, we want to engage them in the game of training, we want them to like solving the puzzles. When we do this, we are creating a deeper relationship with both us and the training. This is playing for the long game. You’ve heard me say this 1000 times “slow down, you’ll go faster”.

In the long run, they are actively working WITH us and retaining the new game. They actually enjoy the training and there is something in it for our horses.

Many people do not realize that, at Sea World, the whales, dolphins and sea lions got all of their food regardless of what they did or did not do. They got all of their social interactions, regardless of what they did or did I not do. Yet, we were expected to get very high criteria. This means that certain behaviors required that they put a lot of effort into their training sessions. So, why did they do it? Because we carefully and thoughtfully developed their motivation and made it fun.

Teaching your horse to enjoy playing the game is definitely falls into the art side of the training. As much as behavior and training are based in science, there is also art to reading your individual horse and knowing how/when to progress to help turn them into an engaged and happy problem solver. When this happens, they look forward to their next training session and all that it entails…beyond the food. 

Our goal isn’t to fade food from the big picture. However, as we look down the road and integrate R+ training as a way of life, we will want to fade the food from each behavior so that the behavior is not reliant on the presence of food. Continuing to feed each approximation when the behavior is solid, would be tedious and counter productive. If we have made it all about the food and haven’t engaged them in playing the game, it will be hard to fade the food from a particular behavior. On the other hand, when they would rather play the game than eat their jack pot, it is easy to see that contra freeloading is alive and well. We are activating their seeking system and they are enjoying the process. 

To get our horses to enjoy solving the puzzle can be a bigger challenge for some horses than it is for others. It takes a thoughtful yet systematic approach to help the individual to develop this skill set. Often times, through traditional training, we can shut down their desire to play the game or solve the puzzle. In fact, puzzles may indicate the potential for corrections, thereby making them unwelcome, especially for the sensitive horse. When we are constantly using aversive techniques (R-) as a training option, for cues or for corrections, the horses may remain in “fight or flight”. This focus can often override their ability to relax enough to practice freethinking and problem solving. When they are in a fight or flight emotional state, their adrenaline is up and they are constantly assessing what to do with the looming threat, even when it is low level. There are specific techniques that we can use to help unlock their sense of safety as it relates to training and this also carries over to our relationship. Of course, there is no recipe, we need to adapt to the individual and pay attention to their body language, their responses and resulting progress. Pretty soon, with repetition, the good or worried feelings go beyond the training sessions and become emotional states that are associated with our presence. 

There was a situation when a professional body worker was seeing one of his clients, a professional ground trainer, who worked with a number of professional riders, utilizing R+ with her clients horses. He began to mock her for feeding her horses. Then he came to one of my demo’s. He learned what R+ truly is about, the science and how it worked. He began to embrace and practice R+ with his own horses. The trainer, that he had mocked, got wind of this and gave the sarcasm right back to him.  He told her that he loved the training, he stated he felt like he was 12 years old again. He was having fun with his horses yet getting serious things done. That was music to my ears! Our golden rule is that training should be fun for you and your horses, no matter what you are working on. You will get further by making it fun. 💚

Learning to understand a new way of thinking is a challenge and might feel overwhelming, but you will soon see that the results are well worth the effort.  

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