MULE CROSSING: Rewards, Treats, Coaxing and Bribing
By Meredith Hodges
It is important to know the differences among rewards, treats, coaxing and bribing in order to correctly employ the reward system of training called Behavior Modification.
Rule Number One: Treats and bribery should never be used during training. However, the appropriate dispensing of rewards and coaxing will produce the correct behaviors.
In order to reward your equine correctly for performing tasks, it is important to know the difference between a reward and a treat, and between coaxing and bribing. Let’s begin with some basic definitions of these terms:
Reward: something desirable given for a completed task
Treat: an unexpected gift given simply because it will be enjoyed
Coax: to gently persuade without dispensing the reward
Bribe: to persuade the animal by indiscriminately dispensing treats
Remember to give your equine a reward only after a specific task you’ve asked for has been performed—or even an assimilation of that task, which means the taking of baby steps toward completing the task. The reward should be given immediately upon completion of the task and then your equine should be allowed time to enjoy his reward before moving on to the next task. If your equine is given a food reward for only good behaviors, he will be more likely to continue to repeat only those behaviors for which he is rewarded and you can begin to “shape” his behavior in a positive way.
Treats, on the other hand, are a food that your equine especially likes, which are given randomly and without purpose. Giving random treats during training can result in crossed signals and confusion in your animal. Treats such as peppermints and even “horse treats” are generally an inappropriate food source for equines and when dispensed too freely, have actually been known to cause equine health problems, so forego treats of any kind during the training process.
Coaxing and bribing can seem like the same thing, but they are not. Bribery suggests the actual dispensing of a reward before the task has been completed. Bribery is the indiscriminate dispensing of treats and is not the way to clearly communicate to your equine which is truly a positive behavior and which is not. Rewards and coaxing are often confused with bribery, but rewards are dispensed for a task only when it has been completed, and coaxing using the promise of a reward can often be used to help your equine to stop balking and attempt to perform the task you have requested. Then the reward is given only when he has completed the task.
As an example of coaxing, you can extend a handful of crimped oats to lure your equine closer to an obstacle, but he should not receive the handful of oats until he completes the required task or travels enough distance toward the obstacle to deserve a reward. If your equine just won’t come all the way to an obstacle, even to get a reward, you can modify the task by asking your equine to just come closer to the obstacle and then halt (but without backing up). Then the reward can be dispensed for the partial approach and halt, because these actions still qualify as an assimilation of the bigger task that is to be completed. If he backs away at all, he should not be rewarded and you will have to go back to the beginning of the task and try again.
A kind word or a pat on the head may be enjoyable for your equine, but it doesn’t necessarily insure that the desired behavior will be repeated. However, a food reward insures that desirable behaviors will be repeated, because food is a solid, tangible reward. The food reward will back up the petting, (the petting is something that you probably do all the time anyway). When you visit your equine, you most likely pat him on the nose or head and say hello, but there are no real demands for any particular task being asked of your equine—you and your equine are simply interacting. You’re getting him used to touch, discovering how he likes to be touched and learning about his responses, which is actually part of imprinting.
The problem with carrots, apples and other foods people use for treats is that they’re not something for which the equine will continue to work and are not healthy choices for your animal in large quantities. After a limited amount of time, equines can easily become satiated on most treats. It’s like a kid with a bunch of candy bars. Once they become full they don’t want any more candy and they’ll stop working for the treat. Many foods used as treats, when given too freely, may also cause your animal to become tense or hyperactive. However, it’s been my experience that an equine will continue to work for crimped oats as long as you dole them out. Crimped oats are healthy for the body and they don’t cause an equine to become tense and difficult to handle.
When you’re using rewards, always start with lavish rewards for all new behaviors. This means that, every time you teach something new, you’re going to give lavish rewards for even the slightest assimilation toward the correct behavior. For instance, if your foal is tied to the fence and upon your approach, he quits pulling, it’s time to try to walk away from the fence with him and see if he will follow you. In this first leading lesson, you’ll untie him and ask him to take a step toward you. If he does, lavishly reward that step toward you, wait for him to finish chewing his oats and then ask him to take another step forward and toward you. If he complies and takes another step forward, lavishly reward that step too. During the first lesson, you will be rewarding every single step he takes toward you. Remember to keep the lesson short (about 15 minutes) and ask for only as many steps as he willingly gives you.
Between lessons, let your equine have a day off in order to rest. When you return for the second lesson, tie him to the fence and review with him your last lesson from the very beginning. He should remember the previous lessons and be willing to follow you right away in order to be rewarded. If he seems willing to follow your lead, untie him and ask him to take a step forward just as he did before, but this time, instead of dispensing the food reward when he takes the first step forward, simply say, “Good boy” and ask him for a second step forward before you reward him with the oats. You will now be progressing from one step forward before you reward to two steps forward before you reward.
If he won’t take the second step forward, then give the reward for the first step, wait for him to finish chewing and ask again for two steps before rewarding him again. If he complies, you can then reward him every two steps during that lesson and quit after fifteen minutes. Give him another day between lessons and then proceed in the same manner, beginning with a review of the previous lesson, then a reward for the first step, and then for every two steps. During this lesson, you can now ask for three steps, and you can continue asking for three or more steps during this lesson, provided that he takes these steps willingly and then stops obediently on his own to receive his reward. You no longer need to count the steps as long as he is offering more steps between rewards each time. If, because of his enthusiasm, he begins to charge ahead, stop him and immediately reward him for halting. This will insure that he keeps his attention on you and the task at hand. This methodical, deliberate process is setting the stage for a positive and healthy working relationship with your equine.
This is how you begin with leading training, and also how you should proceed with all the new things that you will be teaching your equine. In the beginning of leading training, he gets rewarded for even an assimilation of what you’re asking. For example, when you get to negotiating obstacles, your goal may be to cross over a bridge, but when your equine sees the bridge ahead, he may stop or start backing up. At this point, allow him to back until he stops. Go back and repeat the steps you did prior to approaching the obstacle. Then, asking for only one step at a time, proceed as you did during his flatwork leading training toward the bridge, rewarding each step he takes. Tell him verbally how brave he is and continue to reward any steps he takes toward the obstacle before proceeding forward. Remember to stop at any interval where he becomes tense, ask for one more step to be rewarded, and then allow him to settle and refocus before asking any more from him.
Once he goes to the bridge without a problem, you no longer have to reward him all the way up to the bridge. Just reward him when he actually gets to the bridge. Next, step up onto the bridge and ask him to take a step up onto the bridge with his two front feet, which is another new task. If he puts one foot on the bridge or even tries to lift up a foot and put it on the bridge, make sure you reward that behavior. Once he has a foot firmly placed on the bridge, keep tension on the lead rope and ask for his other front foot to come up onto the bridge. If he places his second foot on the bridge, you can then reward him for having both front feet on the bridge. Next, you’re going to continue forward and just walk over the bridge to the other side, pause and reward. Then quit this lesson. In his next lesson, if needed, repeat the approach the same way if he starts to balk. If not, ask him to step both front feet up onto the bridge, stop, make sure he is standing squarely, and reward that behavior.
Now you no longer need to reward for one foot on the bridge. This is called “fading or phasing out” the reward for a previous behavior (one step), while introducing the new behavior of walking to the bridge, halting and then putting two front feet up on the bridge. Wait for a moment for him to chew his reward and then ask him to continue onto the bridge, stop and square up with four feet on the bridge and reward. If he does not comply and won’t stop on the bridge, just go back to the beginning, approach the bridge as described and try again until he stops to be rewarded with all four feet placed squarely on the bridge
Then you ask him, to place his two front feet on the ground while leaving his two back feet on the bridge. Then have him stop and square up to be rewarded. This is a difficult position and if he cannot succeed by the third attempt, you may have to step in front and aid in his balance, then reward him when he settles in this position.
The last step over the bridge is to bring the hind feet off the bridge, stop and square up one more time before he gets rewarded. This does two things. It causes your equine to be attentive to the number of steps you are asking and it puts him in good posture at each stage so that his body will develop properly. In future lessons, the steps in the approach to the bridge no longer need to be rewarded and as he becomes more attentive, he will learn to stop any time you ask and wait for your cue to proceed. After several months of this meticulous attention to these detailed steps, he will not necessarily need to be rewarded with the food reward each time—a pat on the neck and kind words of support should be sufficient. Rewards can then be given for whole “blocks” of steps when he successfully completes them.
Here is a question a lot of people ask: “This is fine while my animal and I are still working from the ground, but what happens when I finally get on to ride? Do I keep rewarding every new behavior when I ride?” The answer to that question is, “No, you don’t.” If you do your ground work correctly, it will address all the things that you’ll be doing while you’re riding before you actually even get on. Your equine has been lavishly rewarded for stopping when you pull on the reins and the drive lines, and he’s been rewarded for turning and backing and everything else he needs to learn before you actually get on him, so the only thing left to get used to would be exposure to your legs on his sides. He will soon learn that your legs push him in the direction of the turn you are indicating with your reins. For this action, he does not need to be rewarded.
In the natural progression of correct training—including during mounting training—your equine should also be getting rewarded when you’re first getting him used to your being on-board. Give him the oats reward for standing still while you attempt to mount (i.e., walking toward him, holding the left rein and reaching for the saddle horn), and then when you hang from each side of his body with a foot in the stirrup (first on one side and then on the other side), and, finally, from each side of his body while you sit on his back. When you ask him to turn his head to take the oats from your hand, you can be sure his attention will be on you because this action will force him to look at you in order to receive his oats. Then reward him again for standing still as you dismount. Consequently, by the time you actually get to the point of riding in an open arena, he’s been rewarded for having you on his back and for behaving well through all the exercises demanded from him during round pen training.
You may first want to lunge your equine when you move into the open arena. Lunge him on the lunge line and reward him during that part of your arena workout. When you are ready to mount in the open arena, have a few oats in your pockets to offer him when you mount on each side the first few times. This will ensure that his attention stays focused on you. Once he is used to being ridden, you will no longer have to reward him in the middle of riding lessons. If he does not keep his attention on his work in the open arena, this signifies that not enough time has been spent on the ground work and you should back up your training regimen to the point that he is maintaining attentiveness and performing correctly, even if it means going back to the round pen or leading work. If, in the ground work stages, you give plenty of food rewards in the correct manner, by the time you groom and tack up, your equine should have been sufficiently rewarded and will not require another reward until after your workout when you return to the work station and un-tack him. This is called delayed gratification. When you un-tack him and do your last minute grooming before putting him away, again be generous with the crimped oats and praise your equine for a job well done. Rewards are dispensed very specifically and pave the road to a solid foundation of trust and friendship.
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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