I use food rewards with my horses a lot and often get asked about how much I reinforce behavior with treats. How do I stop my horse from getting bitey or "muggy".
My experience tells me that on the surface, there are two parts to the answer. One is to make sure that I have a good driving game. Meaning that I can keep my horse out of my personal space. After all, if he can't reach me, he can't bite me or crowd me. This establishes me as a leader straight away and most importantly keeps me safe.
The second thing is to make sure that I am rewarding the things that I want. If my horse nips me or bites me or gets pushy I DO NOT give him a food treat. For heavens sake, why would I do that.
I think to myself...horsey, there is a way to get as many treats as you want. Just do something really cool! I mean seriously, if Nigel wanted to go out at liberty and do one tempi flying lead changes down the long side, he would get as many treats as I could get my hands on!
Speaking of Nigel, I've noticed that an interesting thing has been developing. He has become less and less pushy, bitey, and dominant. I'm guessing that part of that is this good leadership from me. But a new and life changing theory has occurred to me.
Nigel can now count on getting reinforcements with treats. He knows how to procure them. Therefore his anxiety and grabbyness is disappearing. Number one, getting rude doesn't net him anything and number two, doing impressive things (sometimes this is just standing very quietly for saddling)will always earn him a reward. I think this has flipped a switch in his brain.
The BIGGEST HUGEST thing that I've begun to understand, is that how he earns the reward is the important thing to him. At the core, it is not actually the treat that he values most. Engaging the SEEKING part of his brain is the key. Its the deepest most basic instinct that any living thing has.
It comes down to the simple fact that having puzzles and finding answers is what makes horses happy. The SEEKING instinct is more powerful than fear or dominance. Its how horses find water, safety, comfort, play and everything else that they need and want. Its what enables them to live and gives them quality of life.
I've noticed this with all my horses and even with my dog. Having an opportunity to hunt the answer is what they're after. Our great pyrenees Ava won't even take certain treats from me unless I've asked her to do something first. She wants her BRAIN fed. Not her tummy. The SEEKING instinct is in every organism. Its what causes a tree's roots to search deep down for the water vein in soil, a dandelion to find the weak spot in the concrete to break its way into the sunlight and moss to grow on the north side of trees. The SEEKING instinct is why we humans love to read books, play soduku, get masters degrees, hike to see a special mountain view, study horsemanship and millions of other things that we invest gobs of time and money into. It turns our brains on. It nourishes the very part of us that is alive.
I can't believe I am just figuring this out! I mean this is it right? This is the whole golden secret to giving my horses what they need. Its the truth about Horsemanship. My Oh my.