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  • Suzy Maloney

Bribery or Reward?

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

The use of food in training horses is a controversial topic. Many ‘horse people’ are against using food treats. With all other species of animal food is used in training, so why not horses? In many European countries food is used extensively in horse training. Circus and trick horses are also trained this way.

I started questioning people and found an interesting thing. A lot of people don’t understand basic training theory and don’t know the difference between bribery and reward.

When training, a cue is used to indicate a desire for a particular behaviour, and when this behaviour is expressed, a reward is given. In this way the animal is more likely to repeat the behaviour next time the cue is given. For example, if you want your horse to move forward you apply the leg (the cue) the horse moves forward (the response) and you remove the leg (reward). Horses learn in other ways as well but this is the form of training used most frequently.

Bribery is when a food treat is given BEFORE the behaviour is expressed in order to try and make or encourage the horse to perform the behaviour. Because the horse receives the reward BEFORE it performs the behaviour it has no effect on future behaviour.

Reward is when the food treat is given AFTER the behaviour has been performed and is called ‘positive reinforcement’. It is called this because it REINFORCES the behaviour making it more likely that it will be repeated in the future.

A good example is with hard to catch horses. Using bribery, a carrot is held out to the horse and when it takes a bite the person quickly slips the halter on. The carrot always has to be used to catch the horse and no progress is made in teaching the horse to be caught normally. Sometimes it even results in the horse quickly snatching the carrot and running away before the halter arrives.

Doing it the other way, the person uses body language and advance/retreat techniques to initially catch the horse (this can take time but it’s worth it). Using a small area at first is advised and then when they understand move to a large area. After the horse has allowed itself to be caught and the halter is on, the carrot is given. It’s a good idea to then take the halter off and call it end of lesson, especially if the horse is particularly difficult to catch. This results in a very positive experience for the horse and they’re much easier next time. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Every time it will take less to catch the horse until after a while the horse will approach you and wait to be haltered.

Once the behaviour is established the reward is given intermittently, perhaps every second time the horse performs the behaviour, then every third time, then randomly, until the reward is phased out completely. This is where you judge your horse and how well the new behaviour is established. Reducing the frequency of reward quickly may be necessary with some horses that are food obsessed and actually INCREASES the likelihood of the behaviour being performed, as the horse never knows which time it will receive the reward.

The effect of using positive reinforcement is that it speeds up training. Something that might normally take months to train can rapidly be established with the correct use of food treats.

The difference in the effect on the horse between bribery and reward is almost black and white. Bribery causes a pushy, rude, and difficult to handle horse and reward results in a willing and easy to handle friend. So perhaps the use of food treats with horses is not

so bad after all, it all depends on the way it is used.

Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Happy Horses Bitless

Ph: 0401 249 263



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