Foundation Lesson – Training with Food – Teaching Emotional Control, Manners & Calmness from the very beginning

Posted in: Equine Training

Hi and welcome to The Academy of Positive Horsemanship. I am Jo Hughes.

This foundation lesson is going to cover a fundamentally important topic for training with appetitive reinforcers; whether that be food or scratches. I am going to explain how to go about teaching our horses emotional or impulse control as well as how to build true relaxation and calmness in your horse when training with these things the horse is motivated to gain. I will also talk about why it’s so important for us to make this our main focus when introducing our horses to reward-based training using a bridge signal and reinforcement.

Managing Emotions

This lesson is a whole load more than training your horse to perform specific behaviours. It is about a foundation concept which teaches your horse to manage his emotions, develop impulse/emotional control around food, and builds genuine emotional relaxation and calmness when around you as a result of learning to manage the excitement of gaining something very valuable indeed. This training is the crucial foundation upon which your training of any physical behaviours will be built for the rest of time, and so I really can’t emphasise enough how important it is to take your time to get this lesson 100% solid before moving on. This stage can often take some commitment and attention in order to reach that goal of a naturally relaxed horse that is in full control of its emotions around food.  It really is worth your investment in this training for the relaxed, centred, thinking and problem solving horse that it produces.

Teaching an Alternative

When we begin to motivate our horses to offer behaviour in order to gain something really worthwhile and pleasant such as food, it WILL prompt them to start performing searching, foraging and investigatory behaviours.

All positive reinforcement trainers focus on actively teaching the horse an alternative, more appropriate behaviour in that situation, so instead of the horse performing  those searching and investigatory behaviours, he is taught to offer that alternative, more appropriate behaviour in order to gain his reinforcement.

Most often the horse is taught to turn its head away from the handler, or even to keep its head and neck straight forward, which is then marked with the clicker and a treat given.

Over Arousal & Frustration

I used to teach horses this way myself for years earlier in my career, however I began to realise that I was actually seeing a lot of frustration developing in them during our training sessions as well as outside of those training sessions too. In fact, their frustration was escalating and becoming much worse when I was around and about them getting on with their daily care but not actively using a bridge signal and treats. It wasn’t achieving the goal of building their emotional control and calmness, it was actually doing quite the opposite!

I now take horses through a very different process when introducing them to training with food, one which genuinely does build very solid emotional control and instead creates a horse that genuinely can relax and be themselves around you when you have pockets bursting full of food – even when you are not specifically training them.

So why do we see that frustration when the horse is taught to offer head away or head straight in order to gain its food reward? For the purpose of this lesson, I will highlight the science, but to understand it more fully, I recommend doing our How Horses Learn Feel & Communicate Course where this is all covered in much more detail.

Food is a naturally appetitive stimulus that horses have an unconditional (reflex) response to. They don’t need to learn about food – the sight and smell of it acts as cues that tell the horse rewards can be gained. The sight and smell of food arouses the activation phase of the SEEKING system in the brain.

And of course that activation as the horse sees and smells the food in our pockets, prompts it impulsively and naturally to perform searching, foraging and investigative activities in order to find it and then consume it. All mammals exhibit these behaviours in the presence of food. Simply put, the smell and sight of food makes your horse want to eat it. Those instinctive searching behaviours that are prompted by the smell of food are things such as nuzzling, nipping, biting, licking, nudging and even pawing. And of course those are the very behaviours which are defined as ‘mugging’ for food, which us humans are trying to eliminate! We don’t want to see them directed towards us.

Since positive trainers are seeking to accomplish unwanted behaviour reduction through ethical, reinforcement based methods first and foremost, we don’t focus on the problem behaviours themselves to make them go away, we ask instead “What can I teach this horse to do instead of this problem behaviour?”

By teaching the horse to do something else instead of the behaviours we don’t want, we can Differentially Reinforce and therefore increase the desired behaviours which ultimately mean the undesirable ones fade and disappear.

Differential Reinforcement

Simply defined, Differential Reinforcement is where you reinforce behaviours under certain circumstances and you don’t reinforce them under other circumstances.  Differential reinforcement is a shaping technique, where you shape a response by reinforcing certain behaviours and ignoring others. There are a number of different ways to use Differential Reinforcement techniques – differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour (DRI), differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour (DRA), differential reinforcement of other behaviour (DRO), differential reinforcement of low rates of behaviour (DRL) or differential reinforcement of high rates of behaviour (DRH).

So if we come back to the horses natural foraging and mugging behaviours when it smells food in the humans pockets, the usual way clicker trainers teach the horse that those behaviours will be unsuccessful in their attempts to get the food is to use the Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behaviour (DRI). The trainer reinforces a response that is physically incompatible with the unwanted behaviours. The response differentially reinforced is often as I’ve mentioned, turning the head away from the handler, or keeping its head and neck straight forward – since both of those behaviours are pretty incompatible with the foraging and investigatory behaviours of nipping, biting, nuzzling etc. In theory this sounds a pretty sensible strategy, so why was I seeing so much frustration and over arousal in horses trained this way?

To understand, we need to take a moment to think about both the actual physical behaviour we are reinforcing in that scenario AS WELL AS what specific cue is developing as a green light for that behaviour.


A cue is an environmental stimulus that an organism can use as a guide to display a particular behaviour or series of behaviours. In other words, a cue is a clue or set of clues in the environment that indicate to the horse that there is an opportunity for reinforcement.

The horse is learning cues ALL the time, since whatever reliably predicts any reinforcement becomes a clue.

Cue >> Behaviour >> Reinforcement

The horse is learning cues ALL the time, since whatever reliably predicts any reinforcement becomes a clue to them that it leads to a reward. This is because the SEEKING system is very heavily involved in the learning process, it induces them to take a lot of notice of external stimuli in the environment such as objects or situations due to the conditioned learning that takes place during this arousal. As such, they are naturally very aware of all the stimuli that lead to the prediction of a reward. When this brain circuit is aroused, it either prompts animals to go to new places or to re-visit places where they expect to get a reward. They are pre-disposed to learn in this state of arousal.

So coming back to differentially reinforcing an incompatible behaviour of head away say, the horse is getting lots of reinforcement for the behaviour of bending its head away from the handler. But what is the cue that is being learned by the horse, and therefore acting as the label for the horse to be in that position next to the handler and move its head away?

Cue >> Behaviour >> Click >> Reinforcement

??? >> Standing next to handler and move its head away >> Click >> Food

But what is the cue that is being learned by the horse, and therefore acting as the label for the horse to be in that position next to the handler and move its head away?

The presence of the handler becomes the reliable predictor that if the horse stands next to them and moves their head away, they will gain their reinforcement!!

The presence of the handler >> Standing next to handler and move its head away >> Click >> Food

That’s all well and good, but let’s just take a moment to think about how often we are moving around our horses caring for them, mucking out, poo picking, putting fresh hay out, grooming.

Our very presence is becoming their guide to come over and stand next to us, move their head away in the hope of gaining that click and treat, especially if we smell of food because our pockets are full. So when we are out in the field poo picking, with treats in our pockets – what are they very likely to do? Yup, respond to that cue they have learnt and offer us the behaviour!!

And we are most likely to ignore them instead of clicking and treating! The lack of reinforcement in response to our presence (which is now the cue) means we have just put the very behaviours that we were actively differentially reinforcing in our horse a couple of hours ago on an extinction schedule where they don’t receive any reinforcement for them at all! And that confusion and non-deliberate extinction in the presence of you (the cue) when you are not wishing to train them, can cause, at best, minor frustration and at its worst, sometimes even strong anger. If you accidently reinforce that frustrated attempt to respond in such a situation by giving them your attention, a scratch or even by bridging and a treat, you are well on your way to building that frustration-induced emotional arousal into the behaviour itself.

Default Behaviours

On top of likelihood of this emotional arousal fall out when teaching these behaviours, they also become an incredibly strong default responses that the horse offers both in the presence of the handler as well as any other time when they aren’t sure what else they should be doing. The standing in that position with head away has the longest history with being positively reinforced, since it is the behaviour which has been being bridged and rewarded from the day the clicker or bridge signal was introduced, so it very quickly becomes an incredibly strong and deeply learned response in the horse.

Ok, admittedly it’s a pretty safe behaviour to have as a default one, and much more acceptable than any of the mugging behaviours, but I was finding that all it was teaching the horse was to perform a specific behaviour when in my presence. It wasn’t helping the horse to actively recognise or manage its own emotions though, in fact I was finding it was actually increasing tension, frustration and unwanted emotions in them when I was around.

Empowerment and Emotional Intelligence

I wanted to empower them, to develop their emotional intelligence by teaching behaviour strategies to manage their own emotions. I absolutely didn’t want my presence for the vast majority of the time I was around them leading to them feeling the need to come and stand next to me and move their head away! Or offer me any other behaviour at all actually! I want them to behave just as horses do naturally when I am around and about them, unless I give them a very specific and obvious cue to perform a behaviour that I have trained using a bridge signal and food, such as a recall or picking up a foot.

So I began exploring with using another of the other Differential Reinforcement Strategies, that of DRA – Differential Reinforcement of an alternative behaviour both with my own horses and those of my clients.

I now use this to gradually shape alternative behaviours which lead to a very calm and relaxed, naturally behaving horse in the presence of the handler with food on them, whether you are training or not. By reinforcing and gradually shaping alternative and other more natural behaviours whilst deliberately and consciously withholding reinforcement for any other offered behaviour in the presence of us and the food, we can deliberately work through a process of extinction with our horses, teaching them that any mugging, over arousal, tension or frustration –based behaviours simply WONT receive any reinforcement at all EVER. Instead, whilst all those behaviours are extinguishing, we can focus on actively reinforcing other more appropriate, natural behaviours in our presence such as grazing.

Grass doesn’t run away from horses, so I don’t think they are very well equipped naturally for coping emotionally with that withdrawal of food reinforcers. As such its our responsibility, if we want to train with food in a way which minimises stress for them, to develop their ability to manage their emotions when reinforcement is being withheld.

A Different Approach

And here in lies the fundamental differences between training those initial steps using the DRI as opposed to the DRA. The DRI is very much focused on providing reinforcement for just one other behaviour, a massive amount of reinforcement is provided for the horse standing next to the handler and keeping its head away when they are around and smell of food! That behaviour is so heavily reinforced, that yes, it does achieve the goal of reducing the mugging behaviours on face value, since the horse is now offering you something else, but it hasn’t actually given the horse a means of reaching that final consummation or rest and digest phase of SEEKING where it can switch any activation of searching and investigative behaviour off! He isn’t offering investigative mugging behaviours anymore; instead he’s simply re-directed them into offering another behaviour of head away. However, he is still experiencing the activation phase of SEEKING but now is searching out the click and food whenever he is is in your presence. That combined with the variability of sometimes being reinforced for being in position with head turned away, and other times not, is very often what produces those over-aroused, tension filled, frustrated horses.

If, instead, we teach them to redirect those mugging behaviours into an activity/behaviour which allows them to reach the final phase of SEEKING and switch that activation phase off, we actually empower them to have a strategy to regulate their own arousal levels. Their default behaviour in the absence of any other cues or in a situation where they begin to become aroused due to any confusion during the training as a result of trainer error, they will be able to leave and engage instead in another more natural behaviour such as grazing as an example.

The DRA schedule help us to achieve that by focusing us on the importance of carefully addressing the true extinction of ALL those unwanted instinctive behaviours in the presence of the very thing which produces them – the smell and sight of food. Only when the horse has fully extinguished all investigatory searching behaviours and it can happily maintain truly relaxed, natural horse behaviours in the presence of the human with food on them in all contexts (so when that reinforcement is withheld), can we say this foundation lesson is complete. Think of it as making changes to address the root cause of the issues, rather than simply putting a plaster over the visible wound.

It’s not quite as simple a training process as using the standard DRI, but hey, when are the best things ever the easiest!? And it can take more attention and commitment to teach it to your horse. But the relaxed, calm horse it produces around both the handler and the food means you really will reach the ultimate goal of being laden with food around a calm horse who is happily grazing, you cue something or pick up a clicker session, reinforce them with food, end your session and they drop back into performing those relaxed natural behaviours of grazing or eating on a haynet.

Start & End Signals

I also like to teach the horse clear start and end signals, to be able to clearly communicate to them when it is ‘classroom time’, and they are free to ‘try’ and ‘be creative’ in their behaviour responses in the hope of gaining reinforcement, as is the case in specific early shaping sessions before the behaviour is finished and on cue. These signals really do minimise the risk of the horse getting frustrated when, outside those shaping sessions, those ‘tries’ are not reinforced. The Foundation Basic tutorial on this topic is a must watch alongside this one.

How to Start

You have by now gone through Foundation Lesson 1, conditioning the bridge signal behind a barrier until the clicker is prompting the horse to expect the food being delivered. Once those classical associations have been made, our focus from here on in is about differentially reinforcing other behaviours as well as looking for and gradually shaping calmness in the horse as we go.

Beginning behind protective contact is a sensible and safe thing to do, especially with horses who show strong mugging behaviours, over arousal and frustration around withdrawal of reinforcement. However we do still need to work through the extinction process of the unsafe behaviours when in the same space as the horse too. Why? Because learning in horses is very context specific so once the context is changed from being behind a barrier to being in the same space, many of these issues can re-appear. It is absolutely imperative during these stages that the handler stays safe, that they read the horse, stay calm and exit the area if need be instead of becoming confrontational with the horse. Always stay next to a gate or a fence so you can step away behind a barrier if necessary during the early stages of this process.

The smell of that food in your pockets is going to prompt those mugging behaviours, and you have also spent a short while actively reinforcing your horse behind the barrier previously when you had food in your pockets. If you then go poo picking with food in your pockets with your horse loose in the field, due to the context change, and no barrier, those investigatory and mugging behaviours are very likely to re-appear. And if that reinforcement is withheld, it can lead to frustration and anger. That can produce a very dangerous situation, especially if through inexperience on the part of the handler, those behaviours have become more resistant to extinction by being occasionally reinforced, as so often is the case! Your horse smells the food on you, walks over and starts pestering you, sniffing your pockets gently, pushes into you a little bit, nibbles a little at your coat, you pop your hand into your pocket and give him a treat! We’ve all done it!

Instead of sticking that plaster over this issue though, we need to focus our attentions on addressing it head on by setting this training up so that we can intentionally withdraw all reinforcement to extinguish those behaviour responses in ALL contexts. If we intend to train with food, and we want horses that are able to truly relax around us and that food at all times, we must intentionally work through this extinction process.

If you have also previously taught the horse to either keep its head and neck straight or move its head away from you, as is normally taught through the DRI process where you PLUS the smell of food is the cue for offering that behaviour response, when you begin working with things this way, you will also need to extinguish those in your horse too, again likely to produce frustration due to reinforcement being withheld.

But we are not going to just throw ourselves into that situation in their presence with food on us and wait it out until they finally realise that those foraging and investigative behaviours aren’t going to gain them reinforcement; that would be potentially very dangerous due to the upset that the horse experiences as they go through the extinction burst before those behaviours finally extinguish. Instead, we can minimise any aversiveness for the horse by using differential reinforcement and gradually shaping their emotions towards more becoming more relaxed by marking subtle changes in their body language behaviours as we go through.

Because the majority of horses will have had previous reinforcement for some or all of these undesired and unsafe behaviours, and my own experience suggests that many have had A LOT, I cannot emphasise enough how crucial it is for students to make sure they stay safe. I will show you how to work through these issues gradually and carefully, but it is your responsibility to ensure you read your horses body language very closely, stay calm, and exit from the horse behind a barrier if its frustration or anger escalates. If you have a horse that guards and protects its feed bucket, pulls faces at other horses while it eats, pesters, bites or shows frustration/anger around hand fed or bucket fed food I would absolutely recommend and advise that you seek experienced, professional help through these initial stages of working with food rather than go it alone.

The main key point to remember when using food to train is the importance of ALWAYS making sure that we have more interactions with our horses where we DON’T give them food (even if we have food on our person) than those where we do. The balance MUST always be weighted more in that direction.

Specific Bridge Signals for Specific Things

One other thing I want to highlight is to do with the bridge signals themselves. If you remember back to the Foundation Basic on Start and End Signals, the first click of any shaping or training session signals the start of it. A clicker is a perfect tool when we need to be extremely precise with timing and marking tiny pieces of behaviour and so I generally tend to keep my clicker for use only within those early sessions of getting a behaviour started and under stimulus control (where the behaviour is on cue) before switching to my verbal bridge signal of good very fast indeed.

Therefore the sound of the clicker is also information to my horses that we are shaping small pieces of behaviour in a specific training session. In all other situations, my verbal bridge signal of ‘good’ at is what I use at all other times during the ebb and flow of our daily interactions. This means that the horses come to learn, and accept that the verbal bridge signal tends to be followed by a mix of reinforcers – scratching AND food whereas the bridge signal of the clicker is mostly always followed by food.

And that’s why I am using my verbal bridge signal of good for these sessions rather than the clicker. I want the clicker to be as powerful a precision sculpting tool as possible, which it is when it is always paired reliably with food, and when set up with the short focused training sessions with clear start and end signals, it clearly states to the horse when it is free to try, explore and offer within the framework of a carefully planned session.

At all other times, I want the horse to relax, switch off, behave calmly as a horse would normally if I weren’t around, even though I am there and loaded with food!!

Now, we can’t expect him to become engaged in the shaping game once he hears the first click that starts the session, feeling confident to explore and offer behaviour in order to gain the information that the immense precision of the clicker gives him during those shaping sessions, but then go out there and work on withholding that very same click and food after we have clicked him for grazing calmly until he gives up offering after his extinction burst! His confusion and upset would be immense!

Instead, we want the clicker noise to be the precision scalpel it is for sculpting tiny approximations of behaviour and we want that to be a potent reinforcer at all times for the job we want it to do in those sessions. But for the rest of the time, we want a less exciting means of marking and bridging, one which can say ‘yes’ but that allows them to be prepared for the following reinforcer to vary. In comparison to the clicker signal, this bridge signal doesn’t always reliably indicate that food is on its way; instead it becomes a means of marking and rewarding that we can use to variably maintain motivation for behaviours that are already learnt and on cue.

So PLEASE don’t go through this process with the clicker, this is focused on the use of a verbal bridge signal! It is much more about teaching emotional control around primary reinforcers of food and scratching than it is about the clicker itself!

Practical Training

The videos I am going to demonstrate this training process with feature my young horse Ellie, who was more or less feral when she arrived with me. Her behaviour around food was pretty extreme – she was very bargy and pushy, she guarded it very strongly, probably as a result of it being a very valued resource for most of her life living in a big herd bred for meat. The moment she saw a feed bucket or smelt the food in my pockets, she would push me about, barge, bite, nip, grab hold of clothing, ears back, becoming very quickly threatening. Her frustration would escalate to anger if I attempted to withhold the food. Not ideal nor safe responses towards a human with food on their person! And certainly not a horse that could safely be trained with food!

She is now a very safe, relaxed, calm and happy horse around a human with food on their person as well as a really good learner as a result of working through this process. If I had taught her using the usual DRI, she would have become more frustrated, more angry and a really very unsafe. As it is now, she is fully able to control and intelligently manage her own emotions, she remains calm and continues to behave as a horse should naturally in my presence until I either click her to pick up a shaping session, or cue a behaviour, which I am then able to reinforce with food. If I don’t cue another behaviour, she will calmly choose to return to grazing or eating her haynet, instead of becoming over aroused and frustrated like she used to do.