There’s a big misconception that if you use positive reinforcement with treats, horses won’t perform without treats. It used to perplex me too. Would I always have to have a treat bag on my hip, even just to lead my horse across the pasture? Then one day, I was in a clicker training session with Peanut the burro and it all clicked. We have a “ready” position where he’s standing calmly, head low, nose tipped slightly away. I won’t cue a behavior unless he’s in the ready position (also this is why my horses don’t treat mug). We were working on picking up the feet. First, I touch his leg and he starts looking for the “answer”.
Peanut: It must have something to do with the leg she’s touching.
He thinks about it. He shifts his weight to the other leg as he looks down at my hand on his leg, puzzled. Shifting the weight is step one towards actually picking his foot up. Click and treat. Chew, chew, chew. Ready position. I touch his leg again.
Peanut: okay, taking weight off the leg, but what’s the next step? Hmm
He picks up the foot and stomps it down. Not ideal, but we’re trying to get the big picture across, so I click and treat. Chew chew chew, ready position. I touch the leg again. He stomps it and starts pawing. We’ve moved too far in the wrong direction. I step back. He wants another try so he puts himself back in ready position.
Peanut: maybe I went a bit too crazy on that one. Maybe I’ll try just picking it up and putting it down.
Click and treat, a big “good peanut!” from me for encouragement. chew, chew, chew, ready position. Then something curious starts happening. The next round, I click and go to give him the treat. He lips it purely out of habit but drops it on the ground and snaps right back into ready position. He no longer cares about the treats. He’s dying to know what the answer is! What’s the next step? A couple more rounds and peanut was standing quietly while I held his hoof. He then received the “jackpot” of treats in his dish, which is when I empty out the rest of my treat bag for him to enjoy and I end the session. He watched me dump the treats in his bowl and completely ignored them because he didn’t want the game to end. As I walked out and latched the gate, he continued to watch me walk away with some very sad, quiet “hee haws” before her reluctantly started munching.
This was when I realized something. Food isn’t the just the motivator. It’s the translator! It’s the horse-human equivalent of the “colder-warmer-hotter-bingo!” game we all played as kids to find an object within a room. Once we all know the rules of the game, each “warmer” was reinforcing, until we hit the jackpot.
For example, if we’re in my kitchen and I asked you to grab me a spatula, and you said “sure, where is it?” and we used the cooler/warmer method, you’d find the spatula. But the next time I asked you to grab the spatula, you wouldn’t need to play the game as a motivator. You already know where the spatula is, no big deal, you’re happy to grab it for me. You know what I’m asking and you’ll do it because we’re friends and it’s not that hard. Maybe down the road if you haven’t been to my house in a while, you’ll forget where I keep my spatulas, so we’ll do a round of warmer-cooler, but it goes by pretty quickly as your memory comes back.
So now when I’m hanging out with peanut and I bend over and tap his leg, he instantly picks up his hoof because he knows what I’m asking, we’re buddies, and it’s just not that hard. No treats, no clicks.
This is also why positive reinforcement is a great relationship builder. Peanut and I have lots of happy memories of playing fun games together! We always respect each other’s space and treat each other with kindness. This is why all of them come right up to the gate to great us. Not because they think we have a pocket full of treats, but because they associate people with kindness and fun.