There are several reasons why feeding the treat from our hand may not be the way forward with either a person or a horse new to clicker training.
- The horse is new to people and has no idea about eating from a person’s hand.
- The person is nervous about offering food from their hand.
- The horse tends to mug the person once he realizes they have food in a pocket or pouch.
- The horse is not gentle about taking the food from the hand.
- Some horses are shy of people’s hands due to experience, or they don’t like taking food from a person’s hand.
In such situations, we can set up protected contact with a handy bucket or dish into which we toss the treat after the click.
We want the container situated so it’s easy to toss in the treats. We also want to use a container from which the horse can easily retrieve the treats.
In the video I’ve put a shallow round-bottomed bowl into the trough that sits on the gate. The depth and corners of the trough make it hard for the horse to retrieve a small strip of carrot or horse pellets.
In the video, I use the word CLICK (and clicker) to stand in for any marker sound you have chosen to use with your horse.
Charging the Clicker
‘Charging the Clicker’ is the first thing we must do when be begin clicker training. We want the horse to relate the sound of our ‘marker sound’ with the idea that a bit of food always follows that sound.
Some horses pick this up very quickly. Others need many short repeat sessions before they make the connection. For horses taught to wait to be told what to do next or get into trouble, the idea of offering a behavior may be a new idea.
This video clip demonstrates just one way of ‘Charging the Clicker’. It has the advantage of using protected contact – a barrier between horse and person. Until we start using food reinforcers with a horse, we don’t know how he will respond to the idea.
Protected contact keeps the person safe and some horses feel safer if a handler is on the other side of a fence. Using a hand-held target means the horse can easily find the YES answer that results in a click&treat.
To me, it feels more meaningful to the horse to ‘charge the clicker’ this way, rather than by waiting for the horse to move his head away from the handler. Using a target gives the horse a tangible destination for his behavior. Asking him to keep his head away from the treats goes totally against the nature of how horses find nourishment. It requires a ‘no’ answer rather than the ‘yes’ answer provided by touching nose to a target.
Once the horse understands the click&treat dynamic, we can work on keeping the head facing forward rather than seeking out the treat pouch.
We can also use this set-up when things are not going well. The horse may have developed the habit of mugging for the treats – pushing his nose into the person. It is totally normal horse foraging behavior – to follow their nose to a likely food source.
By using a bucket or dish, we separate the location of the retrievable food from the person’s body. That alone is a good reason to begin with this technique. Once the horse understands the concept and we understand how the horse is responding to the idea of working for food reinforcement, we can work toward offering the food in our outstretched hand. We can make the switch to hand-feeding while still in protected contact.