Treats and Clickers!

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Treats and Clickers!

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    10-17-2012, 08:43 PM
Treats and Clickers!

I searched the forum as I figured this would be a well-exhausted topic, but I wasn't really able to find anything satisfying.. so I have some questions about clicker training and using treats to train.

My philosophy has always been to not give horses an edible treat for good behavior because they don't make an association between what they just did, and the treat being some sort of reward. It's like they did something right, got a release, and all of a sudden "Ooh, a treat! What a nice surprise!" (in their eyes). I always thought giving a timely release was the ultimate reward. For example, if I wanted to teach my horse how to back up in hand, I wouldn't give him a treat every time he took a step back. It seems that horses that receive a lot of treats can be pushy and mouthy (depending on their personality and training, of course).

Now when it comes to teaching a trick, I see people encourage using treats. I can understand this because sometimes the treat is needed to coax the horse into position (like putting its head down to bow, or putting its head around you to "hug" you). However do they really associate a bow or a trick with getting a treat after? Do they really do the trick because they want a treat, or because you are putting pressure on them? Would a simple pressure and release concept work for tricks?

Right now I want my horses (who are on 200 acres) to come when I whistle. We have LOTS of grass and don't really feed grain, but I think it would be good to give them something to keep them "interested". I don't have any issues catching them, but I have to walk out in the field to do it. They won't actually approach me until I get about 10 yards from them. If I feed them every time I let out a whistle, am I training them to "come"? If I give them a treat every time they come up to me (after I whistle) will they learn that it's the correct behavior, or will they just associate me with food?

^ The problem I have with that concept is that it's like bribery, and what if I don't have a treat when the horse gets to me? For example, if a horse gets loose and I have trained it to come to me with a whistle, what if he comes over but "checks" me (stretches out the neck and sniffs me without letting me get close enough to actually catch them) and sees I don't have a treat, so he goes about his business? That's the problem I have with food bribery. If it's not there, the horse will lose interest, so he doesn't really "want" to be with you. So I may have trained him to come over and investigate me, but that's it (my horses are extremely friendly and will investigate mercilessly, so I'm not worried about that part, it's just a generalization).

I've seen videos of people training their horses using treats. These people are accomplishing things too - but I feel like a treat is kind of an artificial aid, you know? Just like draw reins or something, once they're removed, the horse goes back to its normal way of business. Couldn't the same be said with treats? If horses truly do associate treats with good behavior, when you stop giving treats every time the horse performs something correctly, will it just go back to its normal way of business?

Another thing with treats is how mouthy they make horses sometimes. I'm sure everyone who reads this is familiar with what I mean - any animal that gets handfed frequently will eventually skip the "investigation" step when you hold your hand out and go straight to nibbling. I don't like that.

Just from my experience with horses, I don't think giving them treats is a substantial way of rewarding them. I always think that a timely release is all they need. But if you give them *occasionally* and randomly, the horse will maintain a certain curiosity about you and not be so disappointed if you don't give him a treat when you first greet him. Does that make sense?

My main questions about treats are: Can they truly be used as an associative reward, and do they make horses "friendlier"?

NEXT I just have to ask about clicker training, which is something completely foreign to me. My friend has goats and I couldn't help but be amazed (and highly amused) when she started clicking her clicker and all the goats came stampeding into the barn to eat. I figured if that could be done with goats, why not horses? Minus the stampeding part, hopefully. Would you just make a clicker noise every time you gave a release so the horse associated release with that noise?

All in all I just want to hear everyone's experience, advice, and opinion about clicker and treat training. Thanks a bunch in advance. I am really curious to see what people have to say!
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    10-17-2012, 11:44 PM
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    10-17-2012, 11:56 PM
Just of note here, breezed through your post because I get exactly what you mean. In regards to tricks, yes you can use something like a treat to encourage the horse to move his body like a contortionist! However, you start giving the treats intermittently after they learn the trick or behaviour, so they do it anyway because they MIGHT get a EVERYTIME.

As for whistling the horses in, sure give them some grain to begin with, then do it intermittently, then after a while give them a little grain after you bring them in from the field in a space away from the field, heck it's 200acres!!!

The only problem with using grain to 'catch' a horse is if you arrive with out grain....the horse decides your not worth coming too. Also this is a real issue and you have an emergency and need to catch a horse fast .....and 'oh, I have no grain'......that situation is a real stink!

Clickers.....haven't a clue!
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    10-17-2012, 11:59 PM
Originally Posted by Muppetgirl    
Just of note here, breezed through your post because I get exactly what you mean. In regards to tricks, yes you can use something like a treat to encourage the horse to move his body like a contortionist! However, you start giving the treats intermittently after they learn the trick or behaviour, so they do it anyway because they MIGHT get a EVERYTIME.

As for whistling the horses in, sure give them some grain to begin with, then do it intermittently, then after a while give them a little grain after you bring them in from the field in a space away from the field, heck it's 200acres!!!

The only problem with using grain to 'catch' a horse is if you arrive with out grain....the horse decides your not worth coming too. Also this is a real issue and you have an emergency and need to catch a horse fast .....and 'oh, I have no grain'......that situation is a real stink!

Clickers.....haven't a clue!
^ Haha I mentioned all that in my OP, I know it's super long-winded but I have tons of info in my head and no way to piece it together and make it really work. I have an issue with consistency... I always want to try new things and see if it works better and all it does is confuse my horse! Haha

    10-18-2012, 12:13 AM
I have used treats for some training. Only because they seem to figure out what I want faster. Once they get it I stop giving the treats. Same thing with calling them. I haven't treated them for coming in years and they still come running. As for haltering/catching them I treat once in a blue moon. They want to be caught now and help shove their noses into the halter. Thinking that they just might get one!
Yes I have had issues with being mouthy and I correct that right away if it gets out of hand.
People have their ways of training. Some will agree some will not. I have not done clicker training, and not really interested in trying, but I'm sure it works too :)
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    10-18-2012, 12:28 AM
Giving treats intermittently (variable reinforcement schedule) generates the greatest response and has the greatest resistance to extinction of the behavior. "I MIGHT get a treat" is a better motivator then "I will get a treat" or "I will get a treat every other try". This applies to all species that can be trained using operant conditioning, which is what clicker training is. It comes in many forms, though - have you ever played slot machines or bought lottery tickets? ;) I have seen goldfish trained using operant conditioning (check it out - there are videos on YouTube!), so the limitations of the technique are really with the trainer rather then the intelligence of the animal.
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    10-18-2012, 12:38 AM
So first thing's first, I'm new to clicker training but it has massively helped my aggressive pony and my fearful draft mare.

The first thing I'll mention is about horse's not connecting the dots between the action and the reward - well that's EXACTLY what the click is for. I use a smooch noise so I don't need to carry a clicker, but either works. It's a bridge for the horse to know "this right there is what I want" - it buys you time to get the treat out.

Of course they need to learn what the click means, I do this at the same time as teaching a horse not to mug for food.
I'll start in the horse's stall (I've never had to, but in cases of aggressive horses you can start outside the door) with my pockets full of tiny treats, bits of carrots or hay stretcher pellets. Of course the horse will naturally try to mug you, I'll ignore soft mugging, stronger mugging will be met with a growl or a swat, depending on the severity. Normally within the first minute the horse looks away for some reason or another, a noise or they get bored or anything. The moment they turn away I click/smooch and treat. I always treat arms length away and mostly I do it just behind their chin so they need to back up a step to get it - this reinforces the boundaries. This teaches them that click=treat and that they need to be respectful to get the treat always.

The next skill I teach is touching a target, I use a crop with a duct tape rose on the end for visibility. I hold it out and most horses will sniff it out of curiosity, my mare was horrified of it to begin with though. With the curious ones I just click and treat when they touch it, still arms length and still behind their chin. With the fearful one's I'll reward steps closer to it, with my mare I touched it to her nose then clicked and treated till she got the concept, then she started touching it on her own. They quickly learn to touch it high and low and on their sides to help with stretching, they'll follow it at the walk and trot, and it can be used to help teach many tricks like backing up, bowing and anything else.

I typically do 3 sessions, 5-10 minutes each a day. The gap gives the horses time to calm down out of the food excitement and time to process what they learned, always the second and 3rd session I'll see remarkable improvements. Most skills take only a couple sessions to really nail in.

It may seem like your clicking/treating for tiny things, but each skill builds on the last, eventually you only need to click/treat for the final product.
I started by teaching my pony to touch the target, then he had to follow the crop, then he had to follow the crop at a trot, then he had to follow it and go over a jump, now he gets a big click and treat after an entire course.
You can teach them to fetch in just a day, first touching the object, then chasing the object, then mouthing the object, then biting/holding the object, then holding/carrying the object, then bringing it to you. My pony will get his halter off the side of his stall and hand it to me now. XD

It can also be used to desensitize items, like tarps - clicking and treating interest in the tarp, then touching the tarp, then standing on it, then being near it picked up, touching it picked up, being rubbed by it, letting it be on them.

Each skill gets amped up, so you aren't giving treats for millions of little things, but it takes time and work to achieve these.

I could go more into detail and am happy to answer any questions, but here are some videos I used to help learn.
There are 3, getting started, ground work and under saddle.
Video 1

There are SO many great videos online that explain it better than I could. But I've taught our blind mini to come to the sound of her name, to take high steps when she needs to go over the door sill or ground poles or anything else, to back up and side pass and essentially dance with all verbal or phsyical/touch cues.

Yes treats are an artificial aid, they aren't natural, but neither is pretty much anything else we do with horses. But the behavior, when done right, doesn't require the aid. Like I said each skill is built from the last. I don't need to click/treat for my horse turning her head away ever anymore, but she doesn't get her treat if I clicked and she decides to mug me. I ask my mare to back up regularly throughout the day, when I go into her stall a million times in and out or when I need to go around her front or for any number of reasons, I don't click treat for that - she knows that skill. But when I'm training if she does an exceptional back up, more than a few steps or a very high quality back up with just a verbal command and no physical cue, I'll reinforce it. My mare will come to me and follow me anywhere, treats or not, but if she does something exceptional or new, like trotting to keep up with me, she'll get the reward. So once a skill is learned they only get the reward for exceptional use of it, or if it's starting to get shakey, but typically they only get the reward for the next step in the skill.

About whether or not it makes a horse friendlier. Clicker training will not change a horse's personality, nothing will - but it will change the way they act AND the way they see people.
The way I picture it is like we're the boss, if your boss only got after you when something needed to be done or if you did something wrong, but never said or did anything if all was well - then every time your boss comes over you know you're getting more work or more complaints about not doing something well enough. But if your boss asks you to do something and you do it well, and he says "good job" or shows you appreciation, maybe earning you that raise you've been working for - it'll be worth it, you'll be more eager to see your boss, even if he does have work for you. You may even WANT you boss to come give you more work because it means more responsibilities, more ways to prove yourself, and more rewards (money).
I think horses are the same way, of course BALANCE is the key, mixing negative and positive reinforcement (removal of pressure + addition of a reward) I find is a great way to train most horses.
But every horse is different every horse will need a different balance. Finding that balance is up to their handler.
I've never found clicker training to cause any negative results, other than perhaps my horses are a little too excited to come see me, even if I'm just walking by, not going to see them. But I've taken things slow and made sure not to let my horses ever think they could be rude.
    10-18-2012, 10:49 AM
Originally Posted by PunksTank    
So first thing's first, I'm new to clicker training but it has massively helped my aggressive pony and my fearful draft mare....
I watched Shawna's videos and I loved it! She's really funny. "He'll just lose his lil noodle!" She makes a lot of wonderful points and makes giving food as a reward make more sense. I subscribed to her on FB and noticed quite a few of my friends are subscribed as well. Where has she been hiding???

I like the boss/employee analogy you gave. It makes a lot of sense.

Thanks a TON for your advice. I'm going to figure out something cool to use as a "target" and try to get this started today!
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    10-18-2012, 10:57 AM
Ok, I'll admit I skimmed over some of these posts and I'll definitely go back and read further (I'm also very curious about clicker training) but in regards to the horses coming when you whistle - I've done this, and it's worked very well for me.

At first I would shake the grain bucket (a sound every horse knows well) and whistle while standing by the gate, and eventually I dropped the shaking. Then after they were consistently coming every time I whistled I started only bringing grain intermittently, the other times giving them lots of scratches and attention. I still bring grain intermittently, just so they keep associating the whistle with "good things."

I've had a few horses come and go in the last few years, and the new horses seem to pick it up very quickly when the others come running when I whistle.

The only problem is, I'm not a very good whistler and sometimes I can hardly make a sound! Oops!
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    10-18-2012, 11:13 AM
As for horses coming when you whistle, my mare's stall has a back door that connects into her very large paddock. The first day we arrived home it took over an hour of fighting to get her in her stall, quite literally. Today when I come downstairs all I have to do is say "Tank! Time to come in" and I'll hear her trot all the way from the other side of the barn and come right in. Sometimes there's grain, sometimes there's hay other times I'm just going to groom her - but every time she comes in.
I did this by teaching her to 'come here' in her paddock, with clicker training. Once she knew to come to me for her click/treat I would then start by Standing at her inside stall door and calling her name, she wouldn't come, so then I stood at her outside stall door, seeing me she'd come. Each time I did both steps, after a couple tries she no longer needed the second step. Now she doesn't need clicks or treats at all :P But when I hear her trot all the way over I always try to give her something pleasurable.

ETA: I'm glad that got you interested :)

As for giving treats sometimes, I personally found that that can ruin a cue until the cue is strong enough. When teaching my mare to back up I was also faced with a problem of her taking her treats aggressively, she would suck my whole hand in her mouth then slurp the treat off, I never felt teeth but she needed to not do that. I should have gone back to just working on her treat taking alone, teaching her she won't get it if she does that and she has to take it with her lips, but instead I would ask her to back up and go to give the treat, if she was rough she wouldn't get the treat until she was gentle. But that delay caused a very shaky back up. We had to start back up all over again. Once they know the skill you can wean treats off the skill, but a better way to do it is to add to the skill, so not just back up but back up and stand for a minute before the C/T or anything you choose.
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