Ten Easy Ways to Reduce Food Anxiety
A common argument against using positive reinforcement with horses is that it will make the horse pushy, mouthy, and dangerous to be around. Such undesirable behaviors are often the result of food anxiety - and just because these behaviors are appearing does not mean that we should avoid using food rewards with our horses. In fact, these behaviors give us all the more reason to use food. Food rewards are a powerful tool when used correctly, in which we can teach the horse how to behave around food. The key lies in the correct application of the reinforcers, as well as taking the steps to address and manage food anxiety in your horse. Sound easier said than done? Here are ten easy ways to reduce food anxiety in your horse.
1. 24/7 forage access. Horses are designed to eat 17 + hours a day, and the average 1000 lb horse requires between 15-20 lbs of forage per day. Their bodies and minds are designed to be constantly grazing and seeking out food. Slow feed nets are a great way to ensure your horse's daily forage requirement is both met and fed slowly throughout the day.
However, there are situations where 24/7 forage is not possible, so if this is not something you can provide, give your horse some hay/forage at least 30 minutes prior to a training session. Something like a flake of alfalfa or a bucket of soaked hay pellets will fill your horse's stomach and satiate them so they are not frantically seeking out reinforcement as the sole food source on an empty stomach.
2. Gut/stomach health! This one is key. The majority of domestic horses have ulcers to varying degrees. Sometimes not findable on scope. I recommend talking to your vet, and also pursuing adding probiotics, gut health supplements, and a forage based diet for your horse. Tying back into the first point, having constant access to forage is a great way to reduce your horse's risk for developing ulcers.
Reducing day to day life stress helps in this area too. Higher levels of stress increase the risk of your horse developing ulcers. Stalling less (24/7 turnout is ideal), ensuring your horse has consistent herd companions, 24/7 forage access, reduced frequency of travel, a quieter barnyard, and reducing/minimizing occurrences of resource guarding amongst companions, are all great way to reduce your horse's daily stress levels.
3. Reduce/eliminate resource guarding occurrences. Resource guarding within the herd is often caused by not having enough resources for the number of horses. Provide more locations of forage than there are horses, ensure feed times are quiet and low key (separate the horses if needed, in stalls or feed pens), not taking food into the pasture with a herd of horses, and more! I discuss the causes of resource guarding and how to reduce its occurrence further in this podcast episode.
4. Work with a very low-value reinforcer. Choose the lowest value that your horse will still work for. Timothy pellets, loose hay, soaked hay pellets, something not very exciting. Avoid high sugar/high-value reinforcers for now - you can mix it up later when your horse is relaxed around food.
5. Increase your rate of reinforcement. Feed more frequently (in small pieces to avoid choke), and ask for less behavior in between repetitions.
6. Set them up for success! Basically, set up the training, criteria, and expectations in such a way where they can do no wrong. Focus on clicking for the smallest approximation towards the goal behavior. This way, they get it right almost without even trying. Other ways to set them up for success include choosing a location that your horse is comfortable training in and training at a quiet time of day (ie. not feeding time). It's important to remember that we are also a factor in our horse's training - if we are having a bad day, we can't expect our horses to be at the top of their game training-wise. Taking a few moments before you start a session to recall your shaping plan and ground yourself will help to set your horse (and yourself) up for a successful session.
7. End the session sooner rather than later. Before either of you gets frustrated or mentally fatigued, give your end-of-session cue and leave your horse with some enrichment. I tell people all the time, 10 clicks is really all you need! Wonderful progress can still be made in 1-2 minute training sessions. Take a break, come back, you’ll see progress. It is better to end your session too soon than too late!
8. Clear start and end of session cues. To start a session I put on my training pouch and offer the horse some food. Either by hand or into a food pan or on the ground.
To end a session I put a larger handful of hay pellets (whatever I was training with) into a food pan or scattered in a small pile in the grass, or I offer an enrichment activity, and then I take off my pouch and leave the training area.
The important thing here is that the horse has something to redirect their “seeking” behaviors onto. Just leaving a session and taking the food with you could cause some frustration and feel almost punishing to your horse! So always leave a parting gift and something for your horse to eat.
9. Be VERY consistent with your cues and training. I find one of the biggest reasons for food anxiety/tension is because the horse really isn't sure what to do to get it. This is a trainer error! In addition, make sure your cue is clear to the horse, well-practiced, and easily repeatable. These are both things we focus heavily on in my Foundation Course.
10. Build up the shaping plan slowly and in small steps. We are prone to taking too big of steps in our training, causing the horse to get confused or frustrated about the inconsistent/too high criteria, which presents very similarly to frustration about the food. Review your shaping plan before entering a session so you know exactly what approximations to click for, and how to build from there!
Want to learn more about reducing food anxiety? I cover more of this in my Foundation Course and demonstrate it in detail. I will also coach you through helping you and your horse work through this personally! There can be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to training horses with food, my goal is to help reduce that and make it as fun and effective as possible for both of you. Sign up for the first-to-know list today! https://www.thewillingequine.com/academy