Feeding treats to a dominant cob

Food is highly motivating for Ben. Highly. Motivating. When he first came to me one of my first priorities was to establish manners at feeding time. I quickly learned never to carry treats in my pockets.

The winter before last, Carolyn Resnick posted a series on her Uberstreichen exercises and I thought they would make a good winter activity for Ben and I. Her first priority was that your horse stands still while you do a particular flexion exercise, rest, walk quietly around him and repeat the exercise. We never really got to the exercises. My winter activity consisted of having Ben stand still. It was quite a challenge: first, to stand still while I put my hands on his headcollar, then to stand while I walked away, and, even more, while I disappeared from view walking around him. I tried calmly moving Ben back to the spot every time he moved, but we were getting nowhere. So out came some treats.

I was doing this work in my yard, being the only ice free area I had. I put treats in a bucket and left them about ten feet away, on the other side of the electric fence. Ben’s rate of learning speeded up very quickly, to the extent that now, when I am doing in-hand once again, he remembers that command to stand.

However, in the meantime, I tried some clicker training, taking advantage of someone local who could come to show me and thinking that the positive reinforcement approach would help us both through Ben’s often stubbornly dominant resistance. Clicker training involved keeping treats on my person and rewarding often. No matter how often I tried to impose discipline around these treats, Ben developed a horrible snatching habit which could lead to a bite. He became totally fixated on the treats, offering lots of different behaviours in the hope of gaining a treat and losing all that calm responsiveness that had come before.

I didn’t pursue the clicker training. It felt too mechanical, interfering in the real relationship that was between us. (Quite possibly an expert clicker trainer could do it with real “feel”.)

I am left with the dilemma of motivating Ben as I do in-hand work with him. I am keen to do this with consistency; he is a stiff cob, who, thankfully, loves to ride out and I am keen to supple and strengthen his back.

He is also “stiff” in terms of resistance and does not see a lot of point in flexing and lowering his head. Doing so puts my hand close to his mouth and we have had snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch, snatch.

I have gone back to the treats in the bucket situation; and to getting the basics – standing on the spot – before we do much more. This has been an interesting challenge: Ben is asked to stand on a mat and this has brought his head up and some real resistance, which I find very interesting indeed. He runs out either side, right through my barrier of schooling whip. He challenges me to “mean it!”, to use my body, my voice, my energy very clearly and decisively. With all this going on, his mouthing for treats has been a distraction. He is now running into the handle of my whip, or my hand, and is learning to wait as I go to the bucket and learning that he only gets a treat when he turns away from me.

I do not reward with a treat for every effort. I fetch a treat for the extra efforts and this exercise is making me think about what is rewarding for Ben. He is not a horse that is rewarded by strokes, although I use these, or tone of voice, although I use this also. He likes and needs a break, a quiet pause. He is definitely rewarded by treats, but I need to find a place where they are the reward but not the distraction.

I had thought that Ben and I would be walking circles and serpentines in-hand at this stage. No, we are trying to stand still together.  With this struggle going on – we both have to learn how to do this together – I console myself with the fact that he still comes up to me in the field when I approach with his headcollar.

Having just put the link on to Carolyn Resnick’s blog, I have read her latest post which talks about training a horse and teaching a horse to enjoy signals to halt, go and more.  Well worth a read.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Feeding treats to a dominant cob

  1. Keil Bay is very much distracted by treats. I rarely use them except that he always gets a handful of alfalfa pellets or oats after a ride, and he would stand there in front of the feed/tack room door for eons waiting for it!

    The one good thing is that Keil Bay is SO focused on treats he will do anything I say if I have a treat in hand – so I taught him a simple hand signal (I just hold the palm of my hand up to him and it means stay out of my space) that I can use if I have a treat and am trying to reward something else. But even then you can see the growing agitation as he is so impatient for the treat – he will not grab for it but the impatience literally surrounds his body and clouds his thinking process. Often enough (and many folks really don’t believe me when I say this) he will do what I’m asking if I just verbally say it to him. As in: Keil, will you please just turn your head this way, to your shoulder and stretch that neck without tilting your head? And he does it. It’s truly like he doesn’t speak the language of “horse” but speaks English instead.

    What works best for him is the training/treat scenario is when there is literally ONE treat. A single alfalfa pellet! In my pocket and he knows it’s there but he doesn’t get it until the very end. I have to take him through a bunch of mindless tasks – usually have him walk with me, trot, halt, etc. – enough of a sequence that his mind has to let go of the idea of the treat, and then I sneak in the thing I’m trying to get him to do, have him do it a couple of times, and then reward with that pellet and then we’re done. It sort of defies the whole cognitive theory thing but it’s what works for Keil Bay!

    Not sure what you are using for treats, but I wonder if you use something not quite as tempting if the distraction might lessen? We used to keep a certain kind of peppermint treat on hand but as I got more interested in equine nutrition decided to stop feeding these highly processed tidbits. Apples and carrots can be too messy to use while working, so I now just use plain alfalfa pellets, which are very small and although the horses like them they don’t get all revved up over them. Since I feed alfalfa pellets to balance the calcium:phosphorous ratio in our hay, I figure using them for treats is pretty sound nutritionally as well… 🙂

    When they are getting treats just for the sake of getting treats (i.e. I make cookies for them, or cut up watermelon or something special) I carry it out in a big plastic bowl or on a tray. They know that means “treat” with nothing else attached, and they are used to my method of giving each horse/donkey one treat in turn and then starting over. They are pretty good about standing in place for this doling out of goodies. Keil Bay will cut in line sometimes – and I allow that periodically if he does it without bowling anyone over or causing any ripple effects in the line – since he’s the herd leader and the biggest in terms of sheer weight/bulk it makes sense he might get a little more. (or else he has me completely wrapped around his hoof, not sure which…:))

  2. Billie, Keil Bay seems to have Ben approach to treats. For Ben, it does not matter what the treat is, as soon as he knows I have one he becomes fixated on that. During my last in-hand session with him, I did not produce any treats and he was far more focused on me. At the end, when I walked off to get him a treat, he obviously knew exactly what I was doing and then became excited. Is it a gelding thing? Is it because Ben used to be difficult to catch for his previous owner, who would catch him with a bucket of stones? He also shared a field, and feeding trough, with another horse. I will never know, but his anxiety definitely increases in line with his anticipation of treats.

  3. june

    George is the same with treats. He just can’t think of anything else, and I’ve found the same thing with dogs sometimes – it just gets them antsy. I taught George (and Gus and Skipper before him, who are also grabby and dominant) that he couldn’t have the treat until he moved his nose slightly away from my hand. So I show the treat on my hand and say “Remember your manners” or words to that effect, and he’ll move his nose away, and then I give the treat.