More and more, I’m using positive reinforcement in my training. And yes, often, I’m using a food reward.
When I post a video on Facebook, it never fails that someone comments just to point out that I’m using treats.
It’s like a caveat – yeah, that was really cute/impressive/fun … but you used treats so it kinda doesn’t count.
The idea that treats are bad, or cheating, or okay for silly tricks, but don’t count as “real training” is so prevalent in the horse world, that I think the people commenting on my posts don’t even think about it that way. They just know, treats must be commented on so everyone knows that treats are used.
Even I’ve been struggling with this paradigm – not that I’m going to stop using treats in my training, but I’ve often thought about choosing to show videos with other forms of reward instead, just to avoid the stigma. I’ve seen people praise trainers that I can’t even stand to watch work with a horse, simply because they “don’t hand feed constantly” like that’s the marker of good horsemanship. No treats = good. Treats = bad.
Every time someone implies that my horses only like me because I feed them treats – which happens a lot – I kinda want to give up this whole effort to help other people with their horses and hide in my own barn forever.
It might surprise you that for most of my life I used no treats during training. None. But, as a life long horse learner, I’m always looking to learn about better ways of doing something. Science tells us, using positive reinforcement in your training is that better way.
Studies have shown that positive reinforcement enhanced learning and memorization of the task itself, as well as creating positive associations with both the training, and with humans. Horses trained with negative reinforcement display significantly more discomfort behavior per training session than horses trained with positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement training has also been shown to be effective in a small amount of training time, with lasting effects.
This approach to training is so powerful. It’s exciting and fun, and I want to share it, so everyone – and their Miniature Horses – can benefit.
Skeptical? Curious? Either way, please read the studies I linked above (and many others!) and learn the science behind reward based training. Do more research, and experiment with positive reinforcement with your own horses. Even if you’re not yet beyond the stigma of treats=bad horsemanship, understanding the basics of learning theory, and using rewards other than food, will still allow you to experiment with the effectiveness of this approach.
It’s time we moved beyond “old school horsemanship” with trainers who say things like “you can’t teach a sidepass without a stick” and “you have to show him who’s boss” or “your horse doesn’t get to say no.”
There is a better way. But yeah, it can involve treats.
Here’s a video with some of the fun things I’ve taught using positive reinforcement.
And here’s the free training video referred to in the above video. I hope you enjoy and I hope you have fun playing with your Miniature Horses!