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What is most motivating for your horse during training?

Knowing what your horse really likes, and being aware of how this changes in different situations, is key for using positive reinforcement in your training.

There are different “levels” of reinforcement, and when we know how our horse responds to different rewards – types of food and treats, scratching, rest sessions, etc., we can be more effective in planning our training.

In today’s video, I will discuss levels of reinforcement, and we will look at a study that compared food to scratches as a rewards.

Also, I’ll show you that what is rewarding to us is not always rewarding to our horse… I’ll explain more in today’s video!

See you in the comments,

To read the study referenced in this video, Click Here


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61 Responses

  1. Both of my horses are food motivated. But one of them is a very affectionate little horse and she loves pats, rubs and hugs. She is the kind of horse who will hang her head over your shoulder and give you a squeeze. It is the best hug in the world – except for my darling granddaughters’ hugs. Th e other one is learning to like rubs – we have only had her about 9 months and she is still settling in. Both of my horses like verbal praise also. The more affectionate little one especially. They both respond to positive gentle praise for their good work. Their ears and body posture perk up when given praise. They like to be talked to. My first horse was a cart horse who responded to verbal commands and also loved to be talked to. I just never stopped the habit of talking to the newer generation after she passed.

  2. I would take my filly out on “walks” as a 2 yr old. Any time we encountered something she seemed worried about (such as trash stuck in weeds, a sign that was vibrating in the wind, etc.) I would let her look at it a moment then ask her to move forward and touch it with her nose. As soon as she did she would get a treat. This not only helped her overcome anxiety of things outside our normal environment but helped her build confidence in me keeping her safe. Now if we encounter something she seems concerned about and I ask her “touch” she relaxes while looking to me and is eager to explore it.

    1. My horse showed me what he likes. When I would try to pet him on his neck or next to his face he didn’t seem to enjoy it. Once when I was soaking his foot in therapy for a possible injury I used slow massage down his mane and onto his back down his hind very calmly and soothingly. He just ate that up! From that time on he has been more accepting of me. I like the method used above by Erin.

    2. I have done the same thing with my horse! It is amazing. I actually got it from a horse trainer I watched, I sadly can’t remember who it was! He said it trains the horse to use the thinking side of his brain rather than the reactive side. It has worked so well with my guy, of course, the downside is now he goes and touches everything he sees to get a treat! He plays “I’m scared of this” with me. But we have fun with it and it has really helped him get over some of his spookiness.

    3. Erin, I did the same thing with my horse when she was a yearling! It made her so quiet and easy to handle!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  3. Concerning food rewards, what about horses that tend to be pushy, who perhaps tend to do disrespectful behaviors to “get” their reward such as search pockets, etc. My mare loves carrots, but I’ve almost completely stopped giving them from my hands as she quickly reverts to disrespectful behavior to find and insist on getting that carrot.
    She is also a difficult mare to “bond” with- very independent, and scratching, rubbing, grooming is not a reward to her at all. I definitely would like to find a way to bond with this horse but maintain her respect.
    I really enjoy your videos!

    1. Jayne, with horses like that you have to first work on food manners so only rewarding when they take their head away from you and aren’t being ‘muggy’ and then when you do feed them feed with their head away from you. Establishing good food manners from the beginning will go a long way 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  4. Thanks for this lesson Callie! For my horses, the scratch location varies with the horse. One gelding and a mare love to have their bellies scratched right on the midline. Another mare likes having her chest scratched. The last horse is the one that least demonstrates scratching pleasure, but he seems to like having his chest scratched. I’m also starting with clicker training and carrot slices work well with all four. I use grooming gloves with the horses and the dogs and they all seem to love those, plus the gloves work great for removing loose hair, mud, etc.

  5. I have trained my horse to put his head down (I say “Put Your Head Down”) and only then do I give him a treat…and sometimes I also say, “back up.” So he puts his head down and takes a few steps backwards and then I give him a treat down where his head is. I have done this for a long time. It prevents him mugging me. I often do this routine as I’m letting him off for the day (turning him out in his paddock). Question: at least concerning working with him on the ground: if I stick with the routine (as described above) and I’m purposely working on some specific task (say, yielding the haunches to a simple movement of my arm)…am I confusing the issue by making him do the “head down, a few steps back” before rewarding him for doing whatever specific task I was asking him to do? In other words, does “the routine” muddle the rewarding?

    1. Ingrid, if I understand correctly you are looking to combine the two responses you have already trained for him? I believe what you are referring to is called a behavior chain, basically that you are putting the two responses together, the only way he would be confused is if you changed your cues, as long as you are consistent with that I think you’ll have fun with this!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  6. Good points in the video, especially re: making sure the reward is truly something the horse sees as a reward. Watch out for unintended consequences, though, when it comes to using food or treats as the reward. You can easily create a mouthy, nippy, pushy, ‘cookie monster!’ of a horse.

  7. While my mare definitely has some treats that she likes better than others, I never thought about incorporating that preference in training. I will have to try it out.
    Luckily she also seems to value being scratched by her withers and shoulders. I used treats to help her stand at the mounting block when she first came to me. That was very helpful.

    1. Dani, the scratching is definitely a form of positive reinforcement for some horses – especially if you find their ‘sweet spot’!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  8. Callie, I really enjoy your videos. I have been using positive reinforcement with both my horses after taking a clinic with Shawna Karrasch. I’m very new at it but I love it. I use their feed as a reward and they both seem to get very engaged. I’m doing it for things like backing up, picking their feet up on the up command , walk on, Ho, and target where they touch the target. They love doing these things and of course they do it for the food. One thing I worried about was thinking theyd get all mouthy but they haven’t and they are a lot more interested in me when I go out to see them. So much fun

    1. Joy, Callie attended a Shawna Karrasch clinic a few years ago and really enjoyed it! When you use to correctly and teach them manners around the food they typically don’t get pushy and it makes them more engaged – just like you shared 🙂 glad to hear you are having fun with your horses!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. I work in a large lesson barn, and last month, one of my colleagues said, “Well, of course we cannot use food as a training tool HERE.” I replied that we DID use food every day–but we do not as a barn use TIMING. So staff ends up training some bad behaviors, by mistake. The horses are all fed when it is feeding time, not when they are necessarily behaving in a way we would like. Timing is everything, and I love Shawna Karrasch!!

  9. I have a OTTthorobred who can have behavior problems when he is coming into the barn at feed times. I have used treats to help him respond to safety cues such as stand, walk on etc. and it has really helped. No more rearing which can be dangerous or wanting to run.

    1. That is great Barbara! It is amazing what positive reinforcement can do to change behavior, glad to hear he is safer for you to handle 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  10. My horse LOVES peperment. I cant imagine giving him lots of sugar is to good. What do you r3comend for a healther option. He likes apples but again alot of sugar. He does not live carrots. Go figure!

    1. There is a thought I am having of possibly making him a treat from scratch using approved ingredients, maybe there is a recipe on line. That way you know what he is getting and how much.

    2. Debra, does he have a metabolic problem that you have to watch his sugar intake? For those horses we will actually use very small broken up pieces of alfalfa cubes.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  11. Cubes of carrot, apple etc (longer pieces take too long to eat!) and commercial ‘treats’. Wither scratching, to be rewarding for her, has to take a few mins AND -I now find- is best done with a metal cat comb! behind her withers. . . ecstasy!

  12. I have found Jasmine’s spot half way up her mane, she turns her neck and touches her nose to my offered knuckle and when I have a coat on she tries to suck at the sleeve. I interpret this behaviour as pleasure, it looks a bit like what cats do with their Mothers, so wondering if it is something like that, a “baby”response and is that still good? I would love a video showing more subtle horse behaviours so we can be sure we can spot that they “like ” something. Great video, thanks.

    1. Amanda, great suggestion for a video! It actually sounds like she is doing ‘mutual grooming’ like horses do with each other. Typically they do it when you are scratching their withers and they will sort of lip you as if to ‘groom’ you, which would mean she is enjoying it 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  13. Hi Callie!
    My boy is all about food and anything edible works well as a reward. When I first got him, he was horrible with handling his feet. Just to pick them was a 20 minute battle and I tried all the tricks my farrier and the Internet suggested, to no avail. When I realized what a chow hound he was, I started giving him a bit of carrot every time I finally got a hoof cleaned. Things got better! Now, I bring him in and tie him to the wall and he actually picks his feet up himself and waits for me to hold and clean them!!! Oh, the power of the carrot!

    1. Positive reinforcement is great for training situations like this! Thank you for sharing 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  14. Love all of these ideas :). I have been using flax treats for teaching my mare how to stretch, since she tends to be a bit stiff. Makes stretching easy for me and her.

    1. Patricia, you would love Dr Hillary Clayton’s book “Activate Your Horse’s Core” lots of great stretches in there!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  15. Thank you Callie… Loving your videos. I use peanuts in the shell as rewards for my mare because she is Insulin Resistant and I try whenever possible to limit her Sugar and Starch intake. I was wondering… in the example you spoke about getting the horse comfortable in the spooky corner of the arena… Would you offer them the treat in that corner, or wait until after they had successful passed by it? Thanks again!

    1. Sally, what we have done in the past for horses that have a particular corner that they are afraid of is put a bucket with a little bit of grain in it in that ‘scary corner’ and when they go past let them nibble out of it!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  16. Thank you, Callie, for another great post!

    In addition to food, wither petting, and pressure release, I sometimes use loosening the girth.

    For example, if I want my horse to learn to stand relaxed beside something he seems tense with, I may get him in position, then dismount, loosen the front girth, and let him relax a few minutes, in that spot.

  17. The original definition of positive reinforcement (BFSkinner psychologist who developed this form of behavioural psychology) is anything that increases or maintains a behaviour. This means the horse values the reward more than the inappropriate behaviour. The richness of the reward system is also important. So to encourage your horse to stand for 60 seconds you need to reward frequently to begin with. Also you should always link it with praise so eventually the praise becomes linked. Thank you so much for letting me say this. You put things so eloquently so I hope my contribution is helpful. People so often punish rather than reward. I bought a very headshy horse recently. It has taken lots of patience love and rewards to easily fit a fly mask!

  18. Hi –
    I love you weekly video series. What do you think of clicker training? Any advice about how to pace the positive reward of the treat and the click? For example, my horse gets pretty obsessed about when the next treat is coming from when I train him, and I’m not sure how to start interspersing the food reward with the clicker.

    Thanks again!

    1. Phoebe, this is a fantastic question! Clicker training can definitely be a useful tool for training horses, it gets them really engaged in the learning and is a great tool when used correctly. I would suggest if he is getting excited about the treats though to slow down your pace a bit or even think about a variable reinforcement so not treating every time he does the correct behavior. Sounds like you are having fun with him!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  19. My horse is very good motivated. However, when riding, he responds well to a hearty “Good Boy!” He will lower his head and seems to enjoy the praise!

    1. Gina, it sounds like he has realized that is a reinforcement! Thanks for sharing 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  20. Wildfire is all about the edibles- (unless her meds are in it)!
    She has learned so much using various treats- cut carrot bits, apple bites, and now we often use sugar free apple/oats treats. But the favorite?: Fig Newtons!!
    Ground training we are currently working on liberty side passes both toward and away from me. I had her laying down, but we haven’t worked on that in a long time.
    Under saddle, she has learned to go over and around many obstacles, including going over a see saw ramp, through a baby pool, and over a a tarp wrapped mattress.
    She loves to learn, but definitely expect there to be a treat involved!

    1. That is awesome Shanna! I actually just recently saw someone else using Fig Newtons as a treat and they were putting meds inside of the Fig Newton, almost like the pill pockets you see for dogs – I thought that was a great trick!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  21. Thank you for the training suggestions. I have played around with using withers scratching, treats (carrot bits or commercial horse treats), allowing a short time of grazing, and even 20-3o seconds of quiet as rewards while doing groundwork training with my OTTB gelding. So far, the withers scratching and 20-30 seconds of quiet have seemed to be most effective in getting and keeping him in an engaged state of mind with me, though I will say that before I turn him back out in the pasture, he sniffs my hands and pockets to see if I have some food for him about me! 🙂

    1. Faith, sounds like you are trying lots of different ways to use positive reinforcement with your training!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  22. My horse values peppermint lifesavers and eating grass. I got him desensitized to the dirt bikes at the barn, it’s the hobby of the kids of the people who own the barn. Go figure. I started by having them just sit and we went up to each kid and they gave him a peppermint. Then they started the bikes and revved them, we did the same thing. Then they rode around in circles around him, stopped, went to each one for a peppermint. Then we followed them as they rode, then they stopped and gave him a peppermint. Now it’s not a problem any more. Except for me who can’t stand the noise.

    1. Fantastic example of counter-conditioning, thank you for sharing Catherine!

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    2. Love this! I tried a similar technique with a 24-year-old mare years ago; I called it a treasure hunt. She had become convinced that people were only leading her to More Bad News. For the first week or two I worked with her, I placed carrots in strategic locations on our walks. After that I began to vary the locations. Like you, I found that she quickly became convinced that I actually had some good ideas and would readily and quietly go wherever I pointed her. I never ever took her from a place with food to a place where she would be left with no food (e.g., dirt lot with no hay). She would have considered this A Really Stupid Idea. Well-timed, small food rewards have worked wonders for me with a wide variety of horses over the years, though after mounting, I prefer to reward with wither-scratching and rest from work and/or letting my horse go walk along with buddies before working independently again. I teach my students to find (carefully, I usually do it before they do) the places a horse most likes to be touched, and to remember those special “ooo, ahhh” spots for rewarding their horse. One especially sensitive, thin-skinned, older TB gelding can be a bit touchy all over–but absolutely loves being carefully scratched above eyes and under forelock. My students are always amazed and amused by how he relaxes then. Go figure. Figuring this out is all part of the fun of horsemanship!! I love it and I love this study and this video. Thanks Callie!

    3. LOVE THIS!! I approach training issues the same way, and have found it works so well. Gradual, with clear rewards!

  23. I love the idea of the different levels of positive reinforcement. I’ve been using it for a while with my current project–withers scratches for the smallest good behaviors (for a while there, even the smallest good choice earned a scratch), big neck scratches for bigger achievements, and then ending rides with loosened girth, removed bridle (with face rubs) and often also a grazing break before we untack. This horse was very grabby, so I steered clear of hand fed treats entirely. They distracted him and derailed his train of thought entirely. Scratches, though…he has a deep and abiding appreciation for physical affection.

    1. Abigail, what a great way to integrate these ideas without hand-feeding. Thank you for sharing!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  24. In response to my horse, Chance, becoming sticky, balky (backing and spinning) and defensive, just this morning, I tried something new. This came out of a strong desire to avoid a battle with my horse. It may not be a recommended technique for all horses, but I had to find something that he found valuable. So, I implemented a morning time version of a “progressive dinner” training plan, and it was a huge success!
    He was so funny! Put just a bite or two of feed in disposable bowls and planted them along our path. Getting him to the first bowl took some effort, but by the second bowl, he was happy go wherever I pointed him.
    He was too funny, relaxed and very co-operative :-). Going to try the same game in a different field tomorrow.
    It is the ONLY thing I could think of to make it worthwhile for him. He is a really good guy, but he is definitely sticky and defensive. He is in his twenties, been through a lot of stuff, and I had to come up with something to make it worth his while. Otherwise, he was settling in for war.
    Hopefully, I’m not creating some sort of other problem that will require solving!
    On the ironic side, every male in my family is super food oriented, so this whole food reward thing shouldn’t surprise me! My son was offended when I told him that Chance was more motivated by food than he is! 🙂

    1. What a great idea Gayelynn and I’m happy to hear it worked! I have to say I have found the same with my gelding Zeke (and my husband for that matter) very food motivated 🙂

      -Julia, CRK Training Community Manager

    2. I too have tried the “treasure hunt” approach with great success with a few horses who had very different personalities, and it worked out very happily for horse and human! My adopted mare (the others departed from old age) came with balky behavior both on the ground and under saddle. That behavior faded away almost completely as we bonded and she relaxed into her new easier life, but it made a new appearance mid-summer as she became reluctant to leave the field of lush grass (she was still easy to meet in field, but harder to walk to gate, then easy again after past gate). I had trained her ages ago to knock down cones on the ground to find a bit of carrot underneath. I tried setting up a few “loaded” cones she could see from far away in her big field as a path to the gate as I walked out into the pasture, and voila, no more balking lol! 🙂 What had been a fun bonding trick became a useful tool.

  25. Great info…..I have recently discovered that my horse no longer seems to tolerate patting, but instead seems to enjoy stroking. Why the change I cannot figure out. I do know that in past years, and this year as well, during the spring/summer shedding period, he is a lot more twitchy with firm currying/rubbing in certain spots….maybe the two are connected??? For training and behavior exercises treats are where it’s at for him, however.
    Thanks again, I so appreciate your educated explanations, they are giving me more patience and understanding.

    1. Linda, I find that most horses actually prefer petting to patting although it seems like in his case he is overall more sensitive physically. I’m not sure if you are located in an area that is affected by the tick-borne Lymes disease but if you are it might not hurt to have your vet take a look at him – when horses suddenly develop sensitivities I think it is worth looking into possible physical reasons!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    2. If the twitchy spots and the spots newly sensitive to patting are the same I would be concerned about a pain issue.

  26. My stallion is for sure motivated by food. But I will never hand feed him. Hand feeding a nippy stallion I have learned has put me in great danger. I have also tried hand feeding a gelding and will not do it again as this form of positive reinforcement made a nipper out of him. I think a distinction needs to be made when rewarding a predator like a dog vs. a prey animal like a horse. The greatest reward for my stallion is rest and relaxation.

  27. I really like the idea of different levels of pos.reinforcers for different situations. My boy likes ear scratches and food rewards, but can get mouthy and grabby with food. I am curious..what food treats do you routinely use w/training your horses, Callie? I use carrots but maybe something less sweet might be better on a day to day basis. Good food for thought…especially like checking ourselves in regard to ‘who is getting the PR us or our horses’! thanks

  28. I used clicker training with bites of carrot to teach my young horse to relax for shots. He would get very tense, and we have had to either twitch him or it would take two to administer the shot because he would get very tense and try to rear. Just had my vet out for his spring shots and the training worked like a charm…he relaxed and dropped his head when the vet put her hand on his neck in preparation for the injection, and didn’t blink when he felt the needle. I was thrilled, and so was my vet!

    1. Great use for this training tool, thanks for sharing Becky 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  29. I have found that my aged “rescue” mare does NOT like the typical “pat” anywhere on her body as a form of reward. Not having known her prior to adopting I have no idea of her past experiences. A very gentle rub along with a softly spoken “good girl” works wonders. She also loves her cereal treats (human) called Barbara’s Morning Oat Crunch. Since finding out she has CHOKE one of the Vets suggested a soft, melt in your mouth human cereal. Several would have sufficed, but I was lucky enough to happen on a healthy one that she loves. There are behaviors that I have repeatedly attempted to teach however without success to date rewards or not. Meeting me at the mounting block or standing still while mounting from a fence are nearly impossible along with getting a kiss. The only time I need to mount from atop a fence rail is when I’ll be riding bareback. Being only 4’11” tall unless I have a ladder readily available I cannot mount her any other way. I nearly never ride in the company of others being very self conscious so there is no one to give me a leg up. I seriously need Charlotte to line up along the fence and stand perfectly still while I mount. The kissing is simply a ‘TRICK’ I wanted to teach & certainly not a necessity. If I hold her still she’ll let me kiss her all day, but I want her to offer her sweet velvet mussel toward me as if asking for the kiss. I will continue being persistent & try to find other forms of as suggested in this video.

  30. One of my horses seems to do best with verbal rewards. He talks back to me with little wufflings of his nostrils which I love. So he has turned the tables and he is giving me rewards that I value.

    My other horse is definitely food oriented. She is extremely smart and I have to be very careful that I am actually rewarding the behavior I want and not some other behavior she has slipped in with the one I want. For instance she often hangs back when I want her to come out of the stall so I started clicking and feeding as soon as she started forward. But the hanging back behavior got worse. I think she thought I was rewarding the whole behavior, hanging back and them coming forward. So now I just stand back and wait for her to come all the way out of the stall before she gets the reward. That has been working better.

  31. What a fascinating post about positive reinforcement for horses and understanding what they value! Your insights into equine behavior and training are truly enlightening.

    As I read through your explanations, I couldn’t help but think about how positive reinforcement techniques might be especially effective for a hot horse during the scorching summer months. Tailoring rewards to what they value most could be a wonderful way to keep them motivated and engaged even in the heat.

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information on building strong bonds with our horses. Your blog is a treasure trove of equestrian knowledge, and I’m looking forward to more insightful reads from HorseClass!

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