Wednesday, 2 December 2015

When horses don't 'live in the moment'...

For the past few years, I've felt that while I would use clicker training, or treats as rewards, to train 'routine' tasks such as lifting a foot or standing to get legs hosed, I wouldn't use treats for anything where I wanted quality in the action - for example teaching shoulder in. Mostly I've just said this is because, having trained these types of movement both with and without treats, there is a different feel to them - the quality is not there when you use treats.
So, I was really interested when one of last years students came out with pretty much the same comment last week. As happens sometimes, I had 3 separate conversations around this subject with 3 different people and finally something clicked. 

I think there would be lots of different ways of explaining this, but basically when we use a valuable reward in training, at the point where the horse has learned the task and knows a reward is coming, he is anticipating a future event, rather than being focused on what he is doing right now. 
For us people, we know that 'being in the moment' is crucial to improving our horsemanship - if we are thinking about the last poor canter transition, or wondering what we'll have for tea tonight, we are missing what is happening now. I think the same happens for horses - if they are busy thinking about the tasty carrot they will get if they complete 3 steps of shoulder in, they are not feeling the movement, and it feels different to us. 
Not saying don't use treats - if you fade them out appropriately it wouldn't be a problem, but just interesting to consider?

To put this another way, when the consequence of the horse's actions are big, whether it be reward or punishment, this will cause the horse to anticipate to consequence, which distracts their attention from what is happening in the moment. Which will affect their learning...


  1. An interesting post! Do you still feel this way about using food rewards in training now? Only as this post was from 2015. Thanks

    1. Pretty much. Training is certainly quicker with treats, and the horse will enjoy it if you're not frustrating them etc. However, I guess I'm looking for activities that the horses actually enjoy, rather than enjoy getting paid for! I think its a different feel. So food is an easy, clear, reliable reward and very useful in lots of situations. Working out what other things just feel good to the individual horse, so that the behaviour is rewarding in itself is harder but less likely to cause conflict (I want my treat, but don't really want to do that), and just feels better to me. Looking at the article, I might use the occasional treat when training something like shoulder in, but what I'm really aiming for is to do it in a way that feels good to the horse. Hastily scribbled, does that make sense?