Q & A – Treat Equipment & Classical Conditioning

Posted in: Clicker Training, Equine Training, Q & A Section

Exmoor poniesIn my recent blog post Guest Bloggers, I also encouraged readers to send me your questions, the answers to which I said I would publish as blogs throughout 2013.

We love questions here at Equi-libre Horses! There really isn’t such a thing as a silly question! They are always so valuable – you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be others out there who have been pondering the same thing, yet perhaps might not feel confident enough to ask it. For that reason, I’m sure these Q & A blogs will be helpful to you all – so keep on reading and keep on asking!


“Ok, after heated debate with my girls last night, I wanted to go right back to basics. I tend to try and train with a bumbag or other clear visual cue, (when the girls haven’t stolen it!!). To me, this gives the horse a clear ‘clicker on/off’ signal and thereby assists in avoiding tension outside of clicker sessions. My girls, however, only ever treat from their pockets and feel strongly that the visual cue of the bumbag actually serves to heighten tension within the clicker session. Further, they feel that by always being around their ponies with their pockets stuffed with treats, the treats cease to be a big deal. I must admit, that when ***, (my youngest), trained with a bumbag, her pony (despite lots of relaxation/treat training behind protective contact etc etc) remained very muggy. Now that she uses her pockets, she doesn’t encounter this problem at all. I would really like to hear your opinions, preferences and experiences with this issue as I’m sure it’s something you’ve experimented with over time!”


This is such a great question, thank you for asking it! It is absolutely something that both my clients and I have experienced and experimented with over time.

I know that when many of us first began using a clicker and food, we used the treat equipment on our person as the ‘start’ signal telling the horse that positive reinforcement was available. Removing it therefore, also gave them a clear visual sign that the vending machine had stopped free-vending! When used in this way, my experiences (and those of many of my clients too) have been that the visual sight of the bum bag does then tend to become a learned stimulus very quickly indeed! So yes, whilst it can be a useful set of rituals to have when we first begin using a clicker and positive reinforcement, as the horse and human begin to train more behaviours with these tools, begin exploring with adding cues to the behaviours they have trained, we find the bum bag stays on longer and longer! As such, it can and often does cause tension for a variety of reasons. However, it doesn’t have to and the key to understanding why this can happen and therefore how to change things comes from an understanding of exactly what and how the horses are learning.

I actually now sometimes wear my treat equipment and sometimes, just use my pockets…let me explain why!

Classical Conditioning

Really, this is all about classical conditioning.

Classical Conditioning is also called Pavlovian Conditioning. It is the acquisition of a response to a new stimulus by association with an old stimulus. It involves coupling a stimulus with an innate behaviour, emotional system or physiological response.

In Classical Conditioning, an association is made between two things. The new stimulus triggers the innate reflex response that was produced by a coupling with the old stimulus.

For example, you might eat a new food and then become unwell and nauseous because you catch the flu. These two events are completely unrelated apart from the fact that one happened to follow the other by accident. Yet the close coupling of the two means you develop a dislike for the food and feel nauseated whenever you smell it after this experience. The physical feeling of nausea is triggered upon presentation of the first stimulus (the new food) as a result of its association with the second stimulus which produced an innate reflex response of feeling nauseous. Sounds, colours, smells, pretty much anything within the environment that is perceivable to the learner, can be associated with other things.

This isn’t a form of conscious learning like Operant Conditioning is, it is subconscious and as such is happening ALL the time.

Let’s jump back to the reader’s question now. What does Classical Conditioning have to do with heightened tension and stress experienced by the horse when using treat equipment? Well, rather a lot! If a perceivable stimulus such as a bum bag can produce exactly the same innate reflexes in the learner that the food which has been coupled with it produces through classical associations; it becomes a conditioned positive reinforcer (secondary reinforcer). The treat equipment now also produces those reflexes in just the same way as cues, mats, targets and us walking to the feed room etc. do.

It also works round the other way too with aversives; although in these cases, the reflexes are not positive. Instead fear and physiological stress responses such as increased heart rate, higher breathing rate and higher blood pressures which are then produced when the horse sees the associated stimuli without the need for the original reflex producing stimulus to be present. For example: the mounting block, if the horse found being ridden an aversive experience previously, or a saddle, bridle, headcollar, lunge whip, riding hat or horsebox. In these instances, these stimuli become negative conditioned stimuli.

In the same way as positive conditioned reinforcers such as cues (or a target) reinforce the previous behaviour, when we present a visual positive conditioned reinforce (such as put on our treat equipment), whatever behaviour the horse is performing just prior is reinforced. If your horse is desperately throwing behaviour at you, attempting to solicit a click or treat or even simply trying to get you to interact by getting your attention and you click on that bum bag and begin your training, or go off into the feed room at that moment, their tense behaviour has just been reinforced. And of course, what is reinforced, happens with more frequency.

If we also have a number of behaviours which we have trained our horses using positive reinforcement, but haven’t yet focussed on getting them under solid stimulus control (on cue); where in the absence of that cue they do NOT offer the behaviour, they may well be reading the visual sight of the treat equipment and our mere presence as the cue for those behaviours. That’s another topic for another blog though so I won’t go into that here.

If we instead don’t use treat equipment, but just use our coat pockets, there is less of a reliable coupling between the reflex response that food produces and the visual stimulus of the clothing. Within our day to day interactions with the horses, there is more variability with a pocket within a coat. We often wear a coat with pockets which may have food in them, yet the association between the presence of the coat in the environment and the food is weaker than the clear visual stimulus of the treat equipment.

I make sure to mix things up – I sometimes wear my treat equipment, but won’t click or reinforce in some instances. At other times, I will pick up a training session if I am wearing my bum bag around them, but not unless the horses are relaxed and happily carrying on being the normal, calm beings they are. Sometimes I might have a training session without the treat equipment at all, just the food in my coat pockets. I also often use cues for a behaviour that is already well learned at a specifically picked moment in order to deliberately reinforce a lovely moment of calm, or relaxation in the horse.

I think the key is to be aware of which stimuli have become positive conditioned reinforcers to the horses as that helps us to be aware of what is reinforcing what. Teaching the horse to be calm and relaxed and to be able to switch off when we are not training is really helpful, since that becomes the default behaviour in the absence of any other cue. And ultimately, that is then what is reinforced each time we do pick up a training session with them, instead of any unwanted emotion or behaviour.

If we follow this philosophy we are actively training horses to be able to relax in our presence, so they feel comfortable in their own skin to continue participating in natural behaviours such as grazing unless we cue a behaviour or pick up a training session. Thus, what is continually reinforced as time goes by is a calm, relaxed and happy horse, not a tense or stressed one. We also need to ensure we have actively taught end ‘end of session cues’ which tell the horse that the vending machine has stopped free vending and they can now go back to doing what comes naturally to them – grazing, eating their haynet or chilling out with their buddies.

All of these elements together have been what have worked the best for both myself and my clients so far.

Jo Hughes