Thursday, February 14, 2013

But horses aren't predators!

Originally Posted by PunksTank    
Continuing to love your posts JillyBean!! I was wondering if you could explain one more thing about food rewards (if you were already planning too sorry for jumping the gun :P). I hear so many people say "horses don't think like predators, their food is at their feet, so they don't know how to work for food" - While I disagree with this, seeing my horses dig in the snow for the little grass underneath, and seeing other horses who have learned to kick walls or whinny for food. But I was wondering if you could explain it for people who believe that?
Excellent question and one that I've also seen come up a lot.

Bottom line, every living thing needs energy and usually devotes the majority of its life working to obtain it by consuming food in some way/shape/form. Horses are no exception. It is a simple fact of life: horses need food to survive and so they work for it - whether they're in the wild and searching for grazing grounds or domesticated and chasing the rest of the herd off their flake of hay. Since horses work so hard to obtain their food simply to stay alive, it's an easy thing to exploit as a reinforcer/motivator in clicker training, especially if you use something like enjoy eating and don't get all the time.

Where predators are concerned, I'd actually be more worried about using food with them than I would non-predators. Most predators, like dogs, are fine being given treats. However, there are a few (snakes come to mind) that like their prey to be alive and lose interest in meals that aren't moving. If you were to clicker train an animal such as this, you'd have to find something that motivates them. If squirming meals were the only thing that motivated them to work, you'd have to use that as your reinforcer!

Herbivores, on the other hand, actually need more food than predators to function and that is why they are ALWAYS eating. Plants actually do not contain a whole lot of nutrition, so herbivores eat a lot, poop out most of it, and so must continue eating more. In contrast a predator, like a lion, can get all their nutrients from one meal and some can go weeks without eating.

Which brings us to the issue of being full. Any animal using treats in training does risk getting full and losing motivation to eat (like when you have a HUGE meal and don't even wan to look at dessert! Rare, I know, but it does happen lol). You don't need a starved animal, but right after feeding time probably isn't the best time to try clicker training, either. Generally, if you work with your horse any other time than after feeding time, they should be decently motivated to work for treats since they have such high energy (food) demands. Horses allowed free-choice hay and grass are usually ok since they're getting a slow and steady food intake (as opposed to stuffing themselves once or twice a day) and should still want food when you're working with them since they're working for food all day anyway. However, you'll need to pay attention to your horse and get to know them to find out when his optimal training time will be based on the desire for food (or whatever your reward is) and any other factors that affect motivation and attention.

All of this applies to all animals for the same reasons - here are a few examples of "unlikely" animals working with clicker training, none of which are predators:


Goldfish (I don't think they're predators, and even if they are, how incredible that CT is so simple and elegant it can be used with virtually any animal!):

And, not going to lie, this is my favorite one I found for so many reasons and I LOVE these camels! (And for us CT junkies, check out the targeting, the "stand" game aka "stand on your mat", and the camel/trainer reaction to when the camel asks for food!)

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