Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Clicker Myths: Myth 1

I am starting a series of blog posts on clicker myths. Clicker myths is a catchy title but these posts are not only about training using a clicker, but about looking at many popular beliefs in the horse-world from a behaviourist’s perspective. If you have any behaviour questions you want me to cover please leave a comment. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about these topics!

This first myth seems to be rooted fairly deeply in the horse world and can make for some heated debates... I hope you enjoy my take...
Myth 1:Giving horses food by hand teaches a horse to bite.

Is that so? It’s what I was told growing up but now I don’t think so. Here’s why:

I think the root of our problem is the traditional treat. Many riders enjoy feeding their horses as a way to show affection. Some riders give a reward at the end of the ride for a job well done. Even when we have a very thought out reason for giving Buttercup a sugar after a great ride Buttercup will not see that same connection.

When you give something as highly valued as food to an animal with no reinforcement schedule in mind (randomly) they will begin to associate the treats with the only thing that is constantly paired with the food reward-your hands or pocket.

Now what happens if you even give Buttercup a cookie when she nuzzles your pocket or lips your hand? You have just reinforced those unwanted behaviours directly! When you look at how most horse people traditionally fed treats to horses you can see where the myth came from. Food does not teach horses to bite. We teach horses to bite.

Another reason I have heard not to hand feed horses is it spoils them. Once again it’s not the food but how the food is being delivered. When you look at how some riders dole out the sugar, carrots, and cookies it does kind of remind you of well meaning parents “spoiling” their children with endless presents. When you give something away with no meaning attached animals and children do kind of develop a sense of entitlement. I don’t have any behavioural backings for this one. It just seems logical. We are all more honest hard working people because we have had to work hard for our rewards right? Life is not about free handouts. Or something like that...

Don’t take my word for it though! Here are some other articles about hand feeding and biting.

If you give a horse a cookie

Alexandra Kurland answers the question in this interview with Karen Pryor:

Many traditional trainers are reluctant to use food in their training. How do you prevent the horse from becoming too mouthy?

(look down the page until you see the question... or read the entire interview it's good!)


  1. Agreed! The horses I've seen that are the worst about it are those whose owners indiscriminately give treats close to their bodies. Those horses are the worst because they are constantly in your space with their mouths. At the very least people should learn to fully extend their arms away from their bodies when giving a treat.

  2. Great post!! I do some clicker training with my horses and I get really frustrated when people tell me that giving them treats will only make them bite.

  3. Great post, it always surprises me that people don't get it. Camryn knows that 1. she must earn her "paycheck", 2. when she's earned it she'll hear a click and 3. the treat comes when she's not "reaching" for it.
    It's such a fun thing to do for both you and the horse.

  4. Great blog! Why not come and post it at hay-net.co.uk an Equine Social Blogging Network for more to follow.

  5. So true, we have used clicker training with all our horses. They all know they have to earn the treats. Even our 7 month old colt knows that he can't grab the food. I only see positive when treats are used correctly.

  6. Great post!

    The biting and treats is something I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about.

    I hope you'll continue this series. :)

    And thanks for linking to my blog!