Is it safe to use food rewards in training?
Yes! Clicker training creates rules around the food rewards and teaches the horse how to take food out of your hand gently. This is like teaching the horse “table manners”.
Most horses are very food motivated so it is important that we introduce clicker training in a way that keeps us safe and at the same time helps the horse learn to be gentle around food.
Through extensive practical research I have developed a series of exercises that are the best and safest way to introduce your horse to food rewards and clicker training. The first three things I teach a horse with clicker training are: look away, back off and park.
If you follow these exercises you will find that even the most pushy or mouthy horses will quickly learn to take treats gently and be polite around food.
If your horse is really food obsessed it can help to introduce them to their first clicker training sessions when they are not really hungry, such as right after they have had a meal. This will help them to be a little calmer as they learn the rules around the food. All horses will go through a short period of testing out the rules when they first start clicker training. If you are consistent and only reward the horse for polite behaviour then the horse will quickly learn to take treats gently.
Most other clicker trainers will start by teaching the animal to target (touch an object). I have found that this is not the best way to start horses with clicker training and instead I use the three exercises I mentioned above. Once the horse is polite around food then we can safely teach them targeting or anything else with the clicker.