BARKS from the Guild May 2018

Page 48


From the Horse’s Perspective

Kathie Gregory discusses labels and the importance of self-restraint and a calm emotional


state when using food as an aid to teaching horses here is a general perception that using food in teaching will cause the horse to be rude, mug you, be “pushy,” or start nipping. People often dismiss the possibility of using food for these reasons, but the above situations can arise when working with any animal, it is not unique to horses. There are plenty of dogs who will behave in the same manner if they haven’t been trained otherwise. Firstly, let’s deal with the terminology. The words we use influence how we perceive a situation and how we feel about it. Several words that are commonly used when people talk about using food when training horses are: Rude – the Oxford Dictionary states this is behavior that is offensively impolite or bad mannered. Mugging – used when a horse is invading a person’s space, insistent on getting food from them. Pushy – used to indicate that the horse will not listen but, rather, continue trying to get the person to give him the food. All of these words are labels from a human perspective. In fact, a horse does not know the concept of being rude, mugging, or pushy. From his perspective, he is simply trying to achieve a desirable outcome, and if food has been offered, he is simply saying, “I'd like some more.” If more does not appear, he tries harder and searches for himself. There may also be the expectation that a horse knows he must wait patiently until you choose to deliver food rewards. Again, this is not accurate. Looking at natural horse feeding behavior, food is available throughout his environment. When conditions are harsh horses will share the same space without competition. It is not natural for a horse to depend on someone to piece feed him. When we use food as a means of motivation, reinforcement, and reward, we are activating the seeking system within the brain. This puts the mind in an appetitive state, and the horse is motivated to seek whatever has motivated him, in this case, food. This results in different emotions. The horse will feel anticipation at the thought of food being presented. This may change to frustration if the food is withheld or is not delivered quickly enough. When he receives the food there is pleasure along with relief from the stresses of anticipation and frustration. This satisfies the drive of the seeking system, but is often a temporary state; the seeking system is still activated, prompting the horse to try to get more food. This is one of the reasons working with food is so effective, (providing the food remains rewarding and the horse is successful in achieving it). Its ongoing motivational effect means that the horse will stay engaged for the time you are teaching him. However, there is also another factor involved, and that is self-restraint. The motivation of the seeking system, anticipation, and frustration all work against self-restraint, reducing the horse’s ability to employ it.

Making the Association

When teaching a horse, there are a few factors that influence how he acts. A horse not used to being taught with food may or may not associate the food with what he has just done. If he doesn't associate the food with his action, he will try different things to elicit the food from you until he learns the action that releases the food, and the cue the person uses to ask for the action. If he has made the association, he may also try different things, as it is hard work when you learn something new and the 48

BARKS from the Guild/May 2018

Photo © Andy Francis

Using food in training keeps the mind in an appetitive state, assisting motivation and engagement in learning

brain needs time to process it. Also, repeating the same exercise too many times will result in boredom, and again, the horse may try something different to get the food. It takes time for a horse to understand when he should do something to elicit food. We know we are about to engage in a teaching session with our horse, and we also know when we finish the session, but this is not always obvious to the horse. He will ask you to engage with him at other times, as you are part of the associations he has made with the food being available. Until he has become used to the routine of when sessions happen, i.e. what you do before you start, and as you finish a session, he will try different things to get you to give him food. He may also ask you to engage with him when he knows you are not conducting a teaching session. Food is a strong motivator in itself, and he is likely to see if you have any just because it tastes nice. Horses enjoy learning and to engage in mental stimulation, so he may also try to elicit food as a means of getting you to work with him. There is also your relationship. Doing things together is enjoyable for all parties, and that is also a motivation for him to see if you have food on you. The combination of the activated seeking system, the various emo-