Welcome back to the Leslie Horsemanship Blog
Today, Let's talk about food anxiety.
Food anxiety during training is an incredibly common issue with horse, and it's often the root cause of many problems. It commonly expresses itself as resource guarding, stereotypical behaviours, and nippy/pushiness. Food anxiety shows up when the horse feels like it cannot get the food they require, or that they desperately need it for a variety of reasons.
This is also sadly what turns many people away from R+ training, because they fear that it causes biting issues.
Food anxiety can have many causes, but most of it is through people, which often unknowingly cause this anxiety in their horses because of management issues, but also during training by unclear requests, timing issues and inconsistency. Fortunately, there are several easy solutions to food anxiety that I want to share with you today. These also double as solution and prevention to any potential pushy or nippy behaviours.
So here are some of my best tips for combating food anxiety
Ensure the horse has access to forage 24/7
Horses are meant to be eating constantly, even as little as 3-4 hours without food can cause a drop in the PH of their stomach, which can cause ulcers. So when horses do not have access to food regularly, it makes food a limited resource. Limited resources get fought over, which is why we often see aggressive resource guarding in herds with a limited feeding schedule. In stalled horses we will see horses kick walls, weave, paw, head shake and become pushy during feeding time. During Training the horse will see the food as something it has to get as much as possible of because they may not get enough later. It is especially common in horses that have not been feed prior to training, so at the very least, if a situation does not allow for 24/7 feed, we should ensure our horse has had food prior to a session.
Use the lowest value food that your horse is still willing to work for
High Value food can cause over stimulation-which will contribute to nipping, biting and pushiness. For the majority of horses, apples, carrots etc. are way too high value for most horses, and should be reserved for special treats. Although higher value treats do have their uses and place, regular Hay and Hay pellets (Timothy, Alfalfa or a mix of both) works well for majority of horses for daily use. Celery is another great low sugar option.
When you're teaching new behaviours, utilize a well crafted shaping plan and introduce the idea to the horse in small increments.
Keeping the criteria low at the beginning and shaping the behaviour with as many steps as possible and necessary for your horse, will minimize the chance of errors. This keeps your horse confident about their training, and avoid confusion. When your horse starts getting confused they get frustrated, and anxious about how they can receive their reward. Similar to if we teach with negative reinforcement and are not releasing pressure. This will presents itself as them going back to old behaviours that have worked in the past, or become pushy because they are trying to figure out what you want from them, and how they can receive their reward. Temporarily lowering the criteria will make your request clearer to the horse and avoid confusion, ensuring you will have a happy learner on you.
Master your food handling and timing skills.
Feed away from your body, with the horses head in a neutral position, in the front of their face, avoid lowering your hand as your horse grabs the food and instead push it up into their mouth. This will soon become second nature to you. Getting the timing of your click correct, will improve accuracy, speed up your progress and again, prevent errors and avoid any potential frustration in your horse. If you have a horse that is snappy when grabbing treats, a little trick I learned is to present your hand palms down when feeding, and instantly flip it when the horse touches it with their mouth. Something else to remember, if you do ever mess up a click, feed anyways. One wrong repetition is less problematic than a confusing and anxiety causing one. We can simply pay special attention to correcting the next couple repetitions.
Avoid integrating other horses into the same session
Don't share a session with multiple horses at one time if either of them is anxious around food, feels the need to resource guard it and/or hasn't learned the stand behaviour yet. Even a well adjusted horse that doesn't experience food anxiety commonly, can express resource guarding when a second horse is introduced into the mix. This is because they now have to share their resources, and the horse may become worried that they will not be able to get enough food due to this. *side note: food is not the only resource you horse may be feeling the need to resource guard, you yourself can be a commodity to the horse too.*
Lastly, one of the first lessons any horse should learn is to keep a neutral and relaxed head position between repetitions.
It should be a highly reinforced behaviour, so that it will become the horses default whenever no requests are made to the horse. I recommend working on this behaviour regularly and go back to it as often as you can. We want this to become the horses most favorite go to, and we should be reinforcing this heavily, as this also gives the horse a behaviour to fall back on, should they ever get confused about a behaviour that you're asking of them. Just the fact that the horse understands this, will ease their anxiety about unknown behaviour requests by their handler.
Food anxiety is incredibly common, because horses like most animals are hardwired to seek food at all times. By taking these steps we can ensure to ease their concern around food, have horses that can focus on learning new tasks and have fun while doing it. After all, no one can learn properly if they are anxious. The more we can do to help our horses be successful and comfortable the better.