Will work for food!

It turns out that horses, like dolphins, are highly motivated by food rewards.

What’s the best way to motivate your horse? It’s not a pat on the neck or a scratch on the withers. It’s food. That’s right, food is the most effective way to tell your horse that he’s done a good job and to encourage him to do it again.

According to an article in TheHorse.com, French scientists presented research results at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on Aug. 2, that confirms that rewarding horses with food, rather than physical contact, works best.

“Overall, it appears that scratching the withers may not be considered a primary positive reinforcement for horses,” said Carol Sankey, MSc, a PhD candidate in ethology (the study of animal behavior) at the University of Rennes in western France. “In fact, some horses don’t seem to like it much it at all.”

In previous studies also described at TheHorse.com, Sankey compared food rewards to negative reinforcement and food reward to no reinforcement at all; in both cases the horses’ training programs were significantly improved when food reward was used. The food-rewarded horses also remembered the training longer.

In the latest research study, Sankey and her colleagues compared the results of rewarding training with physical contact (in this case wither scratching) or carrots by training 20 yearlings to stand still on command. Carrots proved to be far more effective — the horses rewarded by food learned more, learned faster, and related better to their trainers.

This is not a new idea. If you’ve ever been to Sea World you’ll see that the primary motivation for dolphins and whales comes in the form of huge containers of fish! These animal trainers use positive reinforcement almost exclusively.

I’ve found food to be an effective training technique with Freedom, too. Last June I wrote about using food to teach him to stand still at the checks during hunting (When Training Means Treats). In this case I used Alfalfa cubes, which I carried in my pocket. It took him NO time to figure out that when he stood still he got fed.

This technique also works for my dogs. One dog in particular can be very obtuse. In fact, I used to think he was stupid. The promise of a treat raises his IQ exponentially. So, maybe it’s time to break out those carrots or cubes again and start reinforcing good behavior. Maybe I can eliminate those temper tantrums when I have to ride away from a group, for instance. I’ll let you know!

5 thoughts on “Will work for food!

  1. I totally agree with you. I’ve been able to convince my dogs that taking medicine and having their ears cleaned is not torture by rewarding them with treats. They don’t even care if said treats are actually some of their kibble.

  2. Both of these hypotheses were no-brainers. Of course food beats no-food, and food will certainly beat punishment every time.
    Horses, like dogs and people, are motivated by different things. The one thing that supersedes all others is that of relationship.
    Will a parent die for a child for food?
    Will a dog defend an owner to the death for a biscuit?
    Will a horse jump a 7-foot high wall for a cooky?
    Building any training program based upon food as the ultimate reward will result in inconsistent results once the animal realizes there is no reward at hand. Horses are not stupid.
    And, there are some horses who respond negatively to food rewards as their attention is drawn so much to the treat that the person offering a cue becomes secondary.
    As a retired equine professional (national or world champion breeder, trainer, judge) I have at least a little experience with this subject across decades and many hundreds of horses.
    The secret is relationship and the security that proper leadership (herdship) brings to the horse, the dog, or the child. The methods and concepts for building such relationship are found in the new book, “Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace: Pursuing relationship with God, horses, and one another.” (Amazon)
    It is always great to see folks look for better training methods, but there is way more to the story than this research might indicate.

  3. Of all the horses that I’ve ridden, my current horse is by far the most food-motivated. (You’d think he’s never fed by the way he lunges at a bale of hay in the aisle if given half a chance!) If I could only figure out a way to feed him treats while riding (carrot on a stick, perhaps?) I imagine our training sessions would go much faster 🙂

  4. I absolutely agree. Nothing is carved in stone in terms of rewards for horse, dog or child. Each one is comprised of individuals and what works for one may not work for another. The trick is to find the method that works best for your horse,dog or child. I have never seen a horse,dog, or child who did not thrive on positive as opposed to negative re-inforcement.

  5. i believe one form of this food reward is “clicker training”.
    but what happens with my horse is that, she doesn’t care!
    while i’m riding, she won’t turn to my sugar filled hand, not with carrots, apples, grane, ANYTHING!
    while in-hand it does work sometimes. but most times she’s too busy seeing thw world!
    she’s 5.

Leave a Reply