I was once told that 'you can teach some horses some things using food' and I believe this to be true. You cannot teach all horses all things using food and there are a few reasons why that is the case.
- It's very hard to raise the emotional level of a horse with food. Last time we looked at how my dog, Mac's, emotional level went up at the sight of food but my horse is simply not that motivated by the sight of a bit of carrot. I don't mean he doesn't want the carrot and wouldn't be interested in it but compared to Mac busily trialling behaviours to get the treat, my horse would be considerably less enthusiastic. My horse would not, for example, piaffe, bow, trot a circle around me, or do anything else that necessitated an increase in emotional level above 'some interest'.
- Horses are grazing animals, ideally eating 17 hours a day. This simply means that food is not that motivating for them. The horse simply doesn't have the same food drive as the constantly hungry Labrador. If a horse IS that hungry then it's the result of very poor welfare that brings us to the next point....
- If the horse is anxious or fearful, food only serves to confuse the situation. A horse will never be safely 'bribed' on to a trailer with food, for example, that lesson must be taught so that the horse obeys the 'go forward and back' commands and becomes confident in the trailer and walking on the ramp. I have often seen food, in the form of a hay net tied to the front of the stall, being used to get the horse into the trailer. More often than not, the frightened horse gets in, grabs a mouthful of hay, throwing its head in the process, hitting it on the roof....you know the rest. Very ugly and the poor horse is now even more afraid.
Food is often useful for shaping behaviours and next time we'll talk about that.
What's your experience with using food rewards with fearful horses, let me know in the comments.
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