Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

    < 7: You Decide | 9: Object Training >
Back to Meet DaVinci
Diary of DaVinci
News & Events
Contact us

The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 8: Feeling Alive
May 9, 2007

Thoughts on Treats, Training and Motivation

Watch the video for Installment 8

As I feel DaVinci's relief at overcoming big fears, I feel I'm getting closer to understanding what he truly wants and perhaps what most horses want. Many horse trainers say that horses simply want relief, to be out of the pressure zone. That's why so many horses respond well to pressure and release. But I'd like to dig a layer deeper.

Hard Wiring
I think horses are genetically hardwired to go "in search of....." When given the opportunity, they become master detectives. In the wild they spend at least 20 hours a day traveling in search of food, water, shade etc. The ability to search and the preoccupation with eating so many hours a day is a genetic component directly related to survival. I may venture a guess that it's also related to abilities they were born to use and are underused in today's domesticity.

Clicking and Treating
I received an amazing letter from a woman who noticed how alive my horses seem in the videos. I think their "aliveness" is brought about in part by clicker training paired with Positive Reinforcement training. Clicker training is where the sound of the click marks the exact moment the desired behavior occurs and is immediately followed by a treat. My treats are alfalfa pellets which are slightly bigger than standard horse feeds. I deliver any where from two to five pellets, a teaspoon to a tablespoon. These are little bits of dried grass, not very exciting.

When Romeo and Juliet paint in public I frequently hear "Oh those horses, they'll do anything for a treat." I think to myself, "If only it were that easy," but then I think of course they'll do most anything for food because that's the way they were made. I've heard from folks who are adamantly against treats, saying that it creates nippy, spoiled, aggressive horses. In my experience it's absolutely the opposite, if, and this is an important if, the rules of clicker training are clearly established. Indiscriminate hand feeding and doling out treats for no reason is what causes nipping. My horses never get anything out of my hand unless they've first heard a click. No click, no treat, no reason to look for food.

Let's Party
Let's say your friends invite you to a party. When you get there, there's no food or drinks. How motivated will you be to go to another one of their parties? Why are social events so attractive if there's food and drinks? It meets a need, to eat, and food is associated with comfort and fun. In my experience, it's really no different for horses.

If giving treats is unnatural then I wonder if I weren't with my horses right now, what would they be doing? Chances are they'd be eating. So isn't it more natural and enjoyable for them to have the ability to eat while they're with me? How many of us have sat through boring, painful meetings using the humble cup of coffee and a donut as our life jacket?

In my neighborhood I observed a few people having extreme difficulty catching their horse in the pasture. It's not that the horse doesn't like them, it's simply the horse doesn't want to go to a meeting without coffee and donuts. Or the horses associate being caught with something unpleasant coming down the pipe. With my horses, I try to make every moment with me the best time they've ever had. I want to leave them with a really good taste in their mouth so the next time they see me, they have happy memories of a party that they can't wait to attend. I, in a sense, have become a successful hostess, creating a waiting list of hoofed friends eager to party with me.

The Thrill of the Chase
I'm not entirely convinced, however, that the draw to be with me is based purely on my skill as a hostess. I believe my horses relish a challenge and the chance to solve a problem. For horses in the wild, there would be obstacles to face in order to get their food. There might be a log that needs to be moved using their hooves, or a branch that needs to be shaken to remove some moss. The horse has done something that's earned him he wants. Moving the log = tender grass; shaking the branch = moss. Here are two examples of clicker training in action with no human and no clicker, just the horse with a challenge, moving towards what it wants.

In my work with the horses, I use a combination of Positive Reinforcement Training with one aspect of Clicker Training. I say one aspect because sometimes Clicker Training can include negative reinforcement where the horse gets clicked for moving away from what it doesn't want. An example would be snapping the lunge whip to get the horse to move and the moment the horse begins to move, it's clicked and treated. It was moving away from the whip, but was rewarded for doing so. That's the classic definition of negative reinforcement, removing the whip to increase behavior. This is always paired with positive punishment, which is adding something to decrease behavior. The whip was added to decrease the action of the horse standing where it was. (Thank you, Cassie! See Interview with an Avian Trainer for more on this topic.)

If I'm able to stay close to what motivates my horse, I'm able see dramatic results from Positive Reinforcement. If I pose a challenge to the horse to paw a ball with its hoof, I ask for the behavior, the horse paws the ball and then gets a click and a treat. This scenario simulates what it would be like for the horse in the wild that moves a log for tender grass. The pawing to get a treat is a motivation that stems from a drive already innate in the horse. In asking him to paw the ball, the horse's motivator (drive to use hooves), and my motivator (to put the behavior on cue), combine to creates a mutually enjoyable situation.

Three Scenarios
I've noticed with DaVinci there are three distinct situations in which I work with him. The first one seems to be his favorite since it's easy for me to read what motivates him. I've included the equivalent situation for a horse in the wild for comparison.

1) Moving toward what he wants

  • Example: Targeting a stick to be led from point A to point B
  • Wild horse: Walking towards a watering hole to drink

2) Moving away from what he does not want

  • Example: Pulling on the halter to get the horse to walk in a particular direction
  • Wild horse: Running away from a mountain lion

3) Standing in place to have something done to him

  • Example: Standing to be groomed, have hooves trimmed, get shots etc.
  • Wild horse: A mare standing still to allow its foal to nurse

In each of these situations I get a different response. I don't want to qualify any situation of being good or bad. What I look for is the aliveness in the horse's expression. I aim to keep the situation as close to how its genetic wiring dictates.

In an instance where DaVinci needs to move away from pressure, I better make sure he has the space to move away. This is why I always have slack in the lead when he's in a halter. The slack communicates to the horse it has access to space and its feet can move. If my arm is attached to the halter, this communicates to the horse that if I it needs to move, there's a human attached that will have to be dragged.

I think I've zeroed in on DaVinci's sweet spot. He definitely loves the first scenario where he moves towards what he wants (watch the video for Installment 8). I guess any one loves to be in that situation. There will be times however, as I contemplate riding him, that he will need to move away from pressure. So the question I'm asking myself is, How can I make the experience as pleasant as possible and as close to his natural preference? How can I have him stand in place and get sprayed with fly spray without him feeling attacked? Is there any way I can turn it into another sweet spot for him?

By Design
I can see when DaVinci's needs are met. He's focused, soft and his neck is arched. When his needs aren't met, I can't see him too well because he's running away. I love working with him at liberty for this very reason. I have a very clear indicator of my effectiveness. The more closely I'm aware of his natural inclinations, the more I'm able to give him what he wants. What he wants is based on how he was designed.

Then I wonder about how I'm designed. I ask myself, how do I feel when I'm operating according to my design? I guess I would have to say those are the times when I feel really alive, and I bet those are the times that DaVinci feels alive too.

< 7: You Decide | 9: Object Training >
Back to Meet DaVinci

If you’d like to know when new installments are posted, contact us and we’ll add your email address to our list of DaVinci Updates.


© 2004-2007 Cheryl Ward & Sam Sharnik
Last updated January 10, 2009