My Horse Doesn't Like Treats
It is possible your horse doesn't like treats, but it's not possible that your horse doesn't like food. All horses like food, but not just like.. they NEED food... food is and always will be a primary reinforcer for your horse. They may just not be wanting the food you're offering, or the fact that you are the one offering it, OR they may not be wanting to do what it is you want them to do to get the food because there is a conflicting motivator that is more powerful in that moment than food... But they do want food. Let me explain further.
If your horse eats hay, grass, or grain.. it likes food. You could use any one of these when training your horse. Use something we know they currently eat and enjoy, and gradually we can condition them to begin to accept a new kind of food reward that may be easier to work with (like hay pellets).
If your horse will eat hay, grass, or grain, but not from you... there's an underlying negative association with taking food from humans that needs to be address before training can continue.. or at least training when giving food by hand.
In these cases, I'll begin by training with a food pan I know they will eat out of and putting their food rewards into the pan/bucket after the click and then gradually get them used to taking food from my hand from that point. And if they still wont take the food just because you're around, you're going to need to approach working with your horse like they are a feral horse such as in this video.
If your horse isn't eating hay, grass, or grain normally.. stop training, stop reading this, and go call your vet. Your horse should be able to comfortably be able to eat all of those (or at least two) without issues. Sometimes known issues like age (very young or very old) may prevent eating hay... but they should be able to eat grass or soaked hay pellets or grain. Sometimes inexperience around concentrated feeds (like foals that haven't been creep fed and feral horses) may cause refusal to eat grain, but they should be able to eat hay and grass normally; time and conditioning should be able to fix this later on.
If your horse will take food from you sometimes, but not all the time, we have some potential causes....
Potentially they are above their fear threshold
A hose that is prepared to run or fight isn't likely to take food. Their biological system stops seeking food and digesting in preparation to preserve their lives should the need arise. So if the horse is feeling scared there is a high chance they will not take a food reward. — Read more here
Fear and negative associations conflicting with what's being asked
Fear of consequences/getting it wrong/being punished - read more here
Fear of pain (perhaps what you're asking them to do has caused pain in the past)
Separation Anxiety, being taken away from a company or the fear of that happening - read more here
Negative Associations with the equipment, environment, behavior, task, human, etc. Anything that has caused harm, fear, or pain for them in the past may be cause.
Dislike of a certain type of food reward
Try various types of food rewards when not training to find what the horse likes
Illness causing reluctance
Talk to your vet
Pain conflicting with what's being asked
Talk to your vet, osteopath/chiropractor, massage therapist, saddle fitter, equine dentist, and more
A change in your body language/behavior
Consider videoing your training sessions and contacting a professional for help.
You might be asking for too much too fast or being in consistent
Consider videoing your training sessions and contacting a professional for help
Read more here
Too low of a reward value
Though I caution against increasing food value much, if at all, in many cases - read here
For R+ to work you have to find something the horse actually likes - read here
For many horses though, it's just a matter of them getting used to taking food from your hand or taking food rewards from humans at all, when all they've every known is eating during meal times or have been corrected/punished for expecting food from the human during training. We have to actually "train" them to take food rewards, and HOW to take food rewards, which is surprising to many people but a normal first step in the process! Whether it's teaching them how to take the food nicely, how not to get frustrated and grumpy, how to have manners, or that they are actually allowed to take food out of our hands.. we have to teach them this and be on the look out for underlying issues that could be making the process difficult.
Reinforcers also fluctuate in value depending on quite a few different variables. Georgia Bruce has an excellent quote on this...
"A reinforcer is something that increases the frequency of the behavior that precedes it. The horse decides what is reinforcing and what is not. Just because you gave him some pellets after the behavior doesn't mean it will reinforce/reward that behavior.. What the horse wants in any given moment depends on a lot of variables:
- Is the horse hungry? If the horse just had a big feed it is probably not going to be interested in earning any more food. If the horse is starving then you might get way more motivation than you bargained for.
- Is the horse thirsty? If so it probably won't want any dry pellets.
- Is the horse really scared and in survival mode? You probably wouldn't stop and eat a chocolate cake if a lion was chasing you.
- Does the horse even like the taste of these pellets? Yeah it ate them but it doesn't mean it necessarily likes them all that much. I wouldn't work for kale either.
- How much food are you offering? Half a tiny pellet...maybe not worth the effort.
- Competing reinforcers? Hey that grass looks waaay more yummy than the boring chaff you are offering as a treat.
- Conflicting reinforcers? Okay so he gets a carrot when he steps toward the float but you also start pulling on that lead rope and freaking him out when he steps towards the float. Make sure any pressure release is actually releasing when the horse tries to offer the behavior.
- Horse is sick? tired? scared? Sorry but your pellets are not reinforcing today.
These are just a few things to consider when you are training. Is the behavior happening more? Did the horse want to repeat the behavior? Yes, okay, great! You found a reinforcer that works at the moment.”- Georgia Bruce www.ClickerTraining.org
Hopefully this list give you some ideas of what could be causing your horse's seemingly lack of interest in food, or why they wont take food from you, but if you're still running into trouble please don't hesitate to contact for through training support. I'd be happy to help in every way I can!
Also, here are some other articles that may help.
Why Wont My Horse Go Even For A Cookie by Robin Foster, PhD, CHBC, Cert. AAB, IAABC
Assessing the aversive nature of pain with an operant approach/avoidance paradigm - 1Salcido, C.A., Harris Bozer, A.L., McNabb, C.T., & Fuchs, P.N. Physiology & Behavior 189 (2018), 59-63.
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